The desert tortoise trichotomy: Mexico hosts a third, new sister-species of tortoise in the Gopherus morafkaiG. agassizii group

by Taylor Edwards, Alice Karl, Mercy Vaughn, Philip Rosen, Christina Meléndez Torres, Robert W. Murphy


Desert tortoises (Testudines; Testudinidae; Gopherus agassizii group) have an extensive distribution throughout the Mojave, Colorado, and Sonoran desert regions. Not surprisingly, they exhibit a tremendous amount of ecological, behavioral, morphological and genetic variation.

Gopherus agassizii was considered a single species for almost 150 years but recently the species was split into the nominate form and Morafka’s desert tortoise, G. morafkai, the latter occurring south and east of the Colorado River. Whereas a large body of literature focuses on tortoises in the United States, a dearth of investigations exists for Mexican animals.

Notwithstanding, Mexican populations of desert tortoises in the southern part of the range of G. morafkai are distinct, particularly where the tortoises occur in tropical thornscrub and tropical deciduous forest. Recent studies have shed light on the ecology, morphology and genetics of these southern ‘desert’ tortoises. All evidence warrants recognition of this clade as a distinctive taxon and herein we describe it as Gopherus evgoodei sp. n.

The description of the new species significantly reduces and limits the distribution of G. morafkai to desertscrub habitat only. By contrast, G. evgoodei sp. n. occurs in thornscrub and tropical deciduous forests only and this leaves it with the smallest range of the three sister species. We present conservation implications for the newly described Gopherus evgoodei, which already faces impending threats…


Critically Endangered Tortoises of Madagascar

On top is the Radiated Tortoise, Astrochelys radiata (Testudinidae), considered to be one of the world’s most beautiful tortoises, whose carapace up to 40 cm long is brilliantly marked with yellow lines radiating from the center of each dark plate of the shell (hence its common name). This “star” pattern is more finely detailed and intricate than the normal pattern of other star-patterned tortoise species.

In the bottom you can see the smaller Spider Tortoise, scientifically named Pyxis arachnoides (Testudinidae), with the typical, attractive spiders-web pattern that adorns the shell.  

Both species are endemic to Madagascar, and are currently classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List.

In both cases, available information indicates that the two species have disappeared entirely from about 40% of its past range through a combination of habitat loss and exploitation, predominantly for domestic consumption. 

References: [1] - [2] - [3] - [4]

Photo credit: ©peace-on-earth.org | Locality: Île Sainte-Marie (Nosy Boraha), Madagascar (2007)

Kalahari Tent Tortoise - Psammobates oculifer | ©Bernard Dupont  (Auob Riverbed, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, South Africa)

Psammobates oculifer (Testudinidae) is an African tortoise commonly known as Serrated Tortoise and Kalahari tent tortoise, with distribution in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia.

The common name, serrated tortoise, stems from the characteristic, ray-like shell pattern and is shared by another tortoise species, Kinixys erosa.

This species remains relatively small, with a shell length of 12-15 cm. It can be distinguished by its relatively low-domed shell which is strongly serrated along its margins at the front and back.

Each shell scute is colored with a radiating star-pattern of black rays on a tan background. The species has buttock tubercles and the shell’s nuchal scute is wide and sometimes divided.



Millie, my beloved Leopard Tortoise, died last week. Although she was never truly ours (her back story is foggy at best) she found her way to us to live out the rest of her life. Her owner was contacted and he said that he had no interest in having her returned to him - hence, I began to process my first reptile.

These photos are all from the same day that she was first opened up. Her bones were left to the flies and hopefully they’ll be maggot cleaned by the time I go back next week to check on them all. Both her shell and bones were delicately pressure washed, and whilst the bones remained in good condition, the majority of the flesh was removed. I will have to try this method of pre-cleaning on other animals.

Her skull is fascinating to me; I will definitely make a better post about her species once she’s cleaned up a bit more and these painful feelings aren’t so fresh. The meat from her body has fertilised the garden she used to romp about it. The saddest part is that the weather here is finally changing; it was so warm and sunny last weekend, she would have loved that.

Impressed Tortoise - Manouria impressa

The Impressed Tortoise, Manouria impressa (Testudinidae), can be identified by its relatively flattened carapace, which has a strongly serrated rim and concave scutes, from which the common and scientific names derive.

The natural history of this tortoise is poorly known, but there is some consensus that it is an upland species occurring in Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam (the specimen in the photo was found in Cambodia).

The species is regarded as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List and is listed on CITES Appendix II.

References: [1] - [2] - [3]

Photo credit: ©Koulang Chey | Locality: Pursat, Cambodia (2007)

En las Tortugas Criptodiras (suborden Cryptodira) de América del Sur, América Central y algunas islas del Caribe, encontramos la Tortuga de Patas Rojas (Chelonoidis carbonaria, antes Geochelone carbonaria) es una de las Tortugas Terrestres (familia Testudinidae). La Tortuga de Patas Rojas (Chelonoidis carbonaria) es una especie bien establecida como mascota; existiendo, al menos en los Estados Unidos, una gran cantidad de criadores dedicados a esta tortuga. Lo que provee al aficionado con ejemplares menos expuestos a un cambio de dieta, enfermedades y posibles maltratos de viaje. Una Tortuga de Patas Rojas mascota saludable requiere poco mantenimiento físico. Debido a su estado de cautividad las uñas tienden a crecerles, que si no son atendidas pueden llegar a afectarle el caminar. Lo más indicado es llevar la tortuga a un veterinario para que le corte la uñas, lo cual es un proceso muy similar al de cortarle las uñas a los perros.

Radiated Tortoise - Astrochelys radiata

Now listed as Critically Endangered species on the IUCN Red Lit, Astrochelys radiata (Testudinidae), endemic to the spiny forest of southern Madagascar, had virtually never been studied in the wild until the late 1990s.

Recent research projects and surveys have contributed to defining the extent of the decline of the species, and it now appears that A. radiata faces serious extinction risks unless current trends are halted.

This species is heavily harvested for food and for the pet trade. In wild mature females of this species produce up to three clutches per season with only 1–5 eggs per clutch, leading to an estimated average production of two clutches of four eggs each per breeding female.

References: [1] - [2] - [3]

Photo credit: ©Bernard Dupont | Locality: Toliara, Madagascar (2013)

September 2113: Ba'ku tortoise, Ba'ku goat

Excerpt from Leonard Fitzmurdle’s personal log, September 20, 2113

“I have a hunch.“

I have learned to both fear and respect these four words when spoken by the captain. They are almost always immediately followed by a variety of mayhem, danger, and physical distress. However, it is undeniable that the scientific payoff has often been equally dramatic.

We were lying in a gully, chests heaving, having finally escaped the angry pack of villagers who had been chasing us through the jungle. After weeks spent undercover winning their trust, we had been foiled by the simplest of mistakes. While out with a hunting party, we encountered a charming sight: a Ba’ku goat, standing on the back of a large tortoise, so as to reach the fruit on a high branch. Briswald stopped with an exclamation of delight, and I immediately pulled out my sketchpad. But when we looked back to our companions, we found we had made a grievous error. Bantas, the leader of the village, was glowering at us from under his considerable brow. He had been suspicious of us from the start, and now his doubts were confirmed.

“Outsiders!” he growled. “Who else would find such a sight unusual?” And moments later we were sprinting through the woods, dodging laser blasts and hanging tree branches with an agility I would not have thought us capable of.

But now we appeared to be safe, and Briswald had a hunch. “I don’t think those villagers really know where the butterfly is to be found at all,” he said, his breathing already returning to normal. “I think we need to seek it in the place where men fear to tread.” As one, we turned to look at the far-off peak of Mount Thragor. “That’s right, my boy,” said Briswald happily. “There’s pterosaurs in our future!”

To my surprise, I felt nothing but excitement at the prospect. To be sure, it would be a massively dangerous and possibly fatal undertaking, but what is life without a little risk?

“And look,” said Briswald suddenly, pointing behind me. “Now you can finish your picture.” Turning around I saw three more tortoises, each with a goat astride his shell. The day was shaping up splendidly.

External image

Read part 2: Ba’ku pterodactyl


Leopard Tortoise – Stigmochelys pardalis

This is a beautiful baby Leopard Tortoise, a species endemic to Africa currently named  Stigmochelys pardalis (Testudinidae). Though Leopard tortoises are the fourth largest tortoise species in the world, with carapace length ranging from 30 to 70 cm, babies are small enough to fit in one hand, and exhibit a distinctive shell markings in tan, yellow, or sometimes shades of dusty brown, with black blotches which tend to fade in mature adults. 

References: [1] - [2]

Photo credit: ©Antionette | Locality: Limpopo Province, South Africa | [Top] - [Bottom]