New Species Of Turtle Discovered - And It's Already Critically Endangered

Female specimen of the newly described turtle (Pelodiscus variegatus) serving as a paratype of the new species. Thomas Ziegler

A new species of turtle, complete with a pig-like snoot and a spotted squishy shell, has been identified in the swampy waters of central Vietnam and Hainan Island in China. Unfortunately, the new species is already listed as "critically endangered" – nice one, humans.

It was long assumed that the Chinese Softshell Turtles all belonged to the same species, however, over the past few decades, scientists realized that these creatures were actually numerous different species.

Now, they've identified yet another. Reporting in the journal ZooKeys, an international team of researchers has carried out tests that identify a fifth species in the genus, the Spotted Softshell Turtle (Pelodiscus variegatus), noted for its unique spots on the underside of its belly. Crucially, DNA analysis showed the individuals were genetically distinct enough to be defined as a new species.

"Some years ago we started to investigate whether all ‘Chinese softshells’ are indeed the same species, and during the course of our research it turned out that there are several unrecognized species,” lead author Professor Uwe Fritz of the Senckenberg Natural History Collections in Dresden told IFLScience.

“The new one is the most beautiful one with its nice spots.” 

Fritz suspects that further analysis of Chinese softshell turtles will reveal even more new species hidden in the genus. "More new species to come!" he said.

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Thomas Ziegler

As the name suggests, softshell turtles have a flexible shell covered with leathery skin rather than a horn-covered shell like you see most turtles and tortoises. They have an extremely long nose (known as a proboscis) with nostrils at the tips that can act like a little snorkel.

The new species is already listed as a vulnerable to extinction, much like the other members of its genus. Softshell turtles are eaten as a delicacy in Vietnam and China, often served up in a stew with chili sauce and bamboo shoots. People also like to chew on bits of their shells, "a bit like chewing gum," Fritz says. This taste for turtle has led to large-scale turtle farming in China and neighboring countries, which has only raised further problems for the turtles.

Characteristic underside plastron markings of the new species. Thomas Ziegler

"For breeding, softshells are transferred across Asia and large farms are established, some outside the native distribution range," Fritz explains. "There is evidence that another species has been brought to Vietnam by this trade, and this new species (originally from China) is now in the wild, occurring in northern Vietnam in the same rivers as the native species.”

“We cannot predict how this will develop but there is the serious risk that the introduced species will outcompete the native one – think of the Grey Squirrel and the Red Squirrel in Britain,” he said. 

The team hopes that asserting the Spotted Softshell Turtle as a new species will allow researchers to raise more awareness and develop better conservation efforts for P. variegatus. Perhaps all is not quite lost for this very strange beast. 

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