Discovery of new Galapagos Islands species has ties to central NY

Oct 26, 2015

SUNY ESF has its fingerprints on the discovery of a new giant tortoise on the Galapagos Islands; a SUNY scientist is part of the research team that made the discovery.

James Gibbs, a SUNY ESF conservation biologist, has handled over 8,000 giant tortoises over the 20 years he’s been trekking back and forth between Syracuse and the Galapagos Islands. So he can easily see the difference between the new Eastern Santa Cruz Tortoise, and the others that live on the island of Santa Cruz in the center of the Galapagos Archipelago.

“[The new species is] rounder and browner than the other ones. They do leap out at you. But if you’ve not spent a lot of time staring at tortoises, the differences are fairly subtle.”

Gibbs says even though they look almost the same as their neighbors, there are distinct genetic differences. That led scientists to think that this newly discovered tortoise actually floated to Santa Cruz from a nearby island and set up housekeeping next to the already established tortoises.  

Getting this distinction is important for a couple of reasons – it will put the scientific spotlight on the new species, which only numbers about 250. That’s compared to the neighboring Western Santa Cruz Tortoise, which numbers in the thousands. And perhaps more importantly, Galapagos National Park managers can take action to protect the new species from their biggest threat to the 100-200-lb. animal -- wild donkeys and goats that compete with the tortoises for food.

"Those are relatively easy, with enough effort and attention, to take care of those issues. And then the big problems will be solved, and the tortoises can slowly creep back up in numbers and restore themselves. It takes a long time, but once the threats are removed, they’ll get there.”