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Scientists discover new species of giant tortoise

Genetic testing has confirmed a distinction shared by 250 tortoises living off of the Galapagos Islands. The finding has brought hope that the vulnerable species can be preserved.

Biologists long suspected that these giant tortoises were subtly different from the others living nearby - their shells were flatter, less like a dome. But now, a team of Ecuadoran and international scientists have found proof in genetic data, a paper published on PLOS One announced on Wednesday.

The species was discovered on the Santa Cruz Island of the Galapagos archipelago, off the coast of Ecuador. The islands are well-known for being an inspiration for Charles Darwin's work on evolution. They were named one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites in 1979.

Yale University biologist Gisella Caccione led the investigation, for which research began in 2002.

The newly discovered species have been named Chelonoidis donfaustoi after park ranger Fausto Llerena, who took care of "Lonesome George." George was the last known survivor of another type of Galapagos tortoise.

Precarious nature

Washington Tapia, researcher and head of giant tortoise conservation at Galapagos National Park, expressed hope that the discovery will help protect and restore the vulnerable species.

The discovery marked the 15th species of tortoise to be discovered off of the Galapagos Islands, four of which have gone extinct.

The 250 Chelonoidis donfaustoi pales in comparison to the 2,000 Chelonidis porteri, the species from which the scientists made the distinction.

Research will continue to better understand the new species and its threats.

In June, Ecuador reintroduced to the Galapagos Islands over 200 tortoises of a subspecies that had gone extinct on the archipelago.

jtm/rc (AFP, AP)

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