Just when you thought scientists had uncovered every Earth-dwelling creature they possibly could, a new animal discovery makes headlines. The latest unearthing involves an international team of researchers who claim to have happened upon an entirely new turtle species while investigating Chinese Softshell Turtles in Asia. The findings were published this week in the journal ZooKeys.
Image Credit: Thomas Ziegler
Once upon a time, scientists thought that the Chinese Softshell Turtle was a single species dubbed Pelodiscus sinensis, but that all changed in recent decades when researchers realized some were different than others. Consequently, they branched the genus into four distinct species including itself, the Northern Chinese Softshell Turtle (P. maackii); the Lesser Chinese Softshell Turtle (P. parviformis), and the Hunan Softshell Turtle (P. axenaria) based on physical characteristics and roaming range.
But despite all the different Chinese Softshell Turtles scattered throughout the region, one of them stuck out like a sore thumb. The underside of its shell was chock-full of dark-colored spots, a feature inconsistent with the other four species. That said, the researchers performed genetic tests to discern whether it was different enough to be considered a new species when, lo and behold; it was!
"This morphological feature, among others, led to the discovery that these animals belong to a hitherto undescribed species," elucidated Dr. Uwe Fritz, a co-author of the paper.
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Given the turtle’s distinctive spotty properties, the researchers are calling it the Spotted Softshell Turtle; its scientific name is Pelodiscus variegatus, with the second bit of that name unsurprisingly translating to ‘spotted’ in Latin.
Image Credit: Thomas Ziegler
Nomenclature aside, the findings further divide the existing genus into additional groups; this doesn’t mean there are now more Chinese Softshell Turtles in existence but instead implies that the individual population numbers for the previously-known species have been reduced to accommodate for the new species.
The implications are particularly alarming considering how the existing species were already considered vulnerable to extinction. This would denote that the new species, P. variegatus, sits in a similar boat, perhaps critically-endangered by the definitions of today’s standards.
"When we look at each species, the distribution range as well as the number of individuals is much smaller than when all were combined. Until now, the newly described Spotted Softshell Turtle was considered part of the Lesser Chinese Softshell Turtle (P. parviformis), which was discovered by Chinese researchers in 1997," added study lead author Balázs Farkas.
"P. parviformis was already considered critically endangered. 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."
We still don’t know very much about P. variegatus, and it’s possible that there could be other undiscovered species of Chinese Softshell Turtles out there. Perhaps future studies will hold a torch to the answers we seek as scientists continue their research. On the other hand, only time will tell.