The Curious Case of the Nonexistent Turtle

With all the stories about "de-extinction" of animal species lately, there's one method that doesn't get much notice -when scientists decide that an extinct species never existed in the first place. That applies to the case of Pelusios seychellensis, which, according to specimens collected by German naturalist August Brauer over 100 years ago, lived in the Seychelles off the east coast of Africa. Curiously, these turtles closely resembled turtles on the west coast of Africa, Pelusios castaneus. But they couldn't be the same, because they lived so far apart. So the separate species name was coined in 1983. But even more curious, no one could find any specimens of Pelusios seychellensis in the Seychelles, and scientists concluded that the species had gone extinct during the 20th century. Not only that, they assumed that humans had caused the extinction. But wait…

Brauer took the trip during which he was supposed to have collected the turtles between May 1895 to January 1896. But he didn’t immediately give his finds to a museum. Specimens from his private collection didn’t get transferred to the Zoological Museum Hamburg until five years after the Seychelles trip, and those turtles soon went on to Vienna’s Natural History Museum. Somewhere in all that shuffling, the west African turtles might have been lumped in with the Seychelles reptiles or otherwise confused. Whatever happened, though, a prominent clue indicates that the turtles were not collected from the wild. One, and possibly two, of the turtles have a perforation through their shells identical to the sort that turtle purveyors have traditionally used to tie turtles together until they are sold for food. Wherever Brauer got the turtles from, he seems to have purchased them.

Oops. On the bright side, this means that humans did not cause the extinction of a turtle species, because Pelusios castaneus is still around -on Africa's west coast. Read the saga of the disappearing turtles at Laelaps. Link  -via Not Exactly Rocket Science

(Image credit: Stuckas et al., 2013)


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