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Archive - Jul 22, 2011 - Story

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Genes of Endangered River Turtle Reveal Ancient Influence of Maya Indians

A genetic study focusing on the Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii) recently turned up surprising results for a team of Smithsonian scientists involved in the conservation of this critically endangered species. Small tissue samples collected from 238 wild turtles at 15 different locations across their range in Southern Mexico, Belize, and Guatemala revealed a "surprising lack" of genetic structure, the scientists write in a paper published online on May 17, 2011, in the journal Conservation Genetics. The turtles, which are entirely aquatic, represent populations from three different river basins that are geographically isolated by significant distance and high mountain chains. "We were expecting to find a different genetic lineage in each drainage basin," explains the paper's main author Dr. Gracia González-Porter of the Center for Conservation and Evolutionary Genetics at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. "Instead, we found the mixing of lineages. It was all over the place." Despite appearing isolated, the genetic data showed the different turtle populations had been in close contact for years. "But how?" the researchers wondered. The best possible explanation, Dr. González-Porter and her colleagues say, is that for centuries humans have been bringing the turtles together. The turtles have been used as food, in trade, and in rituals for millennia, widely transported and customarily kept in holding ponds until they were needed. “For centuries, this species has been part of the diet of the Mayans and other indigenous people who lived in its historic distribution range," the scientists point out in their paper. "D.