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Morafka's desert tortoise --Photographer: Taylor Edwards/University of Arizona
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New Species of Desert Tortoise, Genetic Study Says

Editor's Note July 12, 2011: Post appended with an updated version of the table.

The desert tortoise -- that slow-footed shelled sentinel of America's desert southwest -- is actually comprised of two distinct species, according to a new study coauthored by USGS.

The newly recognized species has been named Morafka's desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai). Most tortoises found in Arizona and Mexico will now be assigned to this species.

Full Lineup of USGS Desert Tortoise News

It took some sophisticated genetic analysis to sort the two species out -- not too surprising for a drab, secretive animal adapted to blend perfectly into the desert environment and keep out of sight.

Desert tortoises were first known to science 150 years ago, says Kristin Berry, a USGS Western Ecological Research Center biologist who was a coauthor on this study, which was published online today. Described in 1861 by Army doctor and scientist James Graham Cooper, the desert tortoise eventually received the scientific name Gopherus agassizii. 

Morafka's desert tortoise --Photographer: Taylor Edwards/University of Arizona
Tortoises found south and east of the Colorado River are now recognized as a new species, Morafka's desert tortoise. Image Credit: Taylor Edwards/University of Arizona

All tortoise populations within its known range -- California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona down to Mexico -- were thought to belong to that single species, Gopherus agassizii. But in recent decades, scientists and wildlife managers began to suspect some differences between populations of this basketball-sized burrower.

“Populations on opposite sides of the Colorado River had different habitat preferences,” says Berry, who has studied desert tortoise biology for more than 40 years. “Tortoises south and east of the Colorado prefer to hide and burrow under rock crevices on steep, rocky hillsides, while tortoises north and west of the Colorado prefers to dig burrows in valleys.”

There were other minute differences as well, such as egg-laying seasons and litte details in the tortoises' shell -- differences you couldn't tell from a casual glance at these leathery clawed crawlers. So Berry and colleagues Bob Murphy, Taylor Edwards, Alan LevitonAmy Lathrop and Daren Riedle organized a little detective hunt.

The hunt involved sorting through and digging up hundred-year-old pickled specimens of desert tortoises from the vaults of the Smithsonian and California Academy of Sciences -- then using sophisticated DNA analysis to compare tortoise genes from these ancient, preserved tissue with samples from living tortoises from throughout the desert southwest. 

It's an intriguing story and history lesson of its own, involving the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, misplaced labels, and lost specimens.
You can read the full tale in this desert tortoise FAQ at

The FAQ also explains why tortoises are a critical component of our desert ecosystem, who the new tortoise species is named after -- and why that researcher once called baby tortoises "walking raviolis."

-- Ben Young Landis

Tortoise table
Comparison of the Agassiz's desert tortoise (original species) and Morafka's desert tortoises (newly recognized species). Adapted by Ben Young Landis from Table I of Murphy et a. 2011.

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