Newly Discovered Turtle Already Facing Extinction

A female spotted softshell turtle. (Thomas Ziegler)

(CN) – A newly discovered species of turtle in East Asia already faces the looming threat of extinction, partially the result of its discovery by researchers.

For decades, scientists widely assumed that softshell turtles all fell under the same species, Pelodiscus sinensiseven though physical features varied substantially by region, including far eastern Russia, the Korean peninsula, China and Vietnam.

At the turn of the century, following a series of debates on shared characteristics of organisms, scientists discovered four distinct species of turtle had branched out from the original species.

A team of researchers from Germany, Hungary and Vietnam then set out to study a newly discovered fifth species of turtle.  The results of the study, published Wednesday in the journal ZooKeys, found the new species differs genetically from the other four.

Before the study, scientist believed the spotted softshell turtle was considered part of the lesser Chinese softshell turtle discovered by Chinese researchers in 1997.

“Pelodiscus parviformis was already considered critically endangered,” said Balázs Farkas, the study’s lead author. “Now that its southern representatives have been assigned to a different species, the spotted softshell turtle, the overall population size of each species is even smaller.”

Researchers also said the newly described turtle has dark blotches on the underside of its shell, which explain its scientific name Pelodiscus variegatus – “variegatus” meaning “spotted” in Latin.

“This morphological feature, among others, led to the discovery that these animals belong to a hitherto undescribed species,” said researcher Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden, Germany.

But the excitement around the identification of multiple species can have potentially ill-fated consequences for the turtles, researchers said.

While the Chinese softshell turtle was once considered widespread and not threatened, each newly discovered species “reduces” the individual population numbers.

Due to its restricted range and the levels of exploitation that occurs in its environment, the species is listed as critically endangered under International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species standards, researchers said.

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