Tortoise Conservation No Shell Game

“Tortoises are bizarre, because they’re probably the only protected and endangered species where people commonly keep them as pets throughout their native range,” Edwards says. “In some cases we may have more captive tortoises than we will wild ones.”
“Tortoises are bizarre, because they’re probably the only protected and endangered species where people commonly keep them as pets throughout their native range,” Edwards says. “In some cases we may have more captive tortoises than we will wild ones.”

Taylor Edwards’ research would crawl at a tortoise pace if it weren’t for modern science.

Deciphering DNA is central to his work with desert tortoises, those charismatic reptiles whose lifespans—as long as 80 to 100 years—make simply observing their evolution and heredity all but impossible during a human’s lifetime.

An assistant staff scientist with the University of Arizona Genetics Core (UAGC) and a doctoral candidate in the UA’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, Edwards and his collaborators have assembled a collection of more than 1,400 samples of tortoise DNA by drawing blood from the tortoise’s scaly forearms. He uses the rich genetic reservoir he has compiled to better understand how millions of years of evolution shaped what the desert tortoise is today and how to conserve it for tomorrow.

His efforts will be honored with a Jarchow Conservation Award from the Tucson Herpetological Society. The award “honors individuals or organizations for their service to the conservation of the amphibians and reptiles of the deserts of North America.”

Conservation Genetics

Edwards has a long history with the desert tortoise. He first met a tortoise on a visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum when he was seven years old.

At that time, visitors to the museum could go into the enclosure, and Edwards has a picture of himself with a tortoise from that visit. When he later worked at the Desert Museum as a keeper, he posted that picture on his locker. He and his family have also two adopted desert tortoises at home.

Since then, his research and conservation work have continued to be intertwined with the tortoise. Edwards has become an expert in DNA testing; over the last seven years he and his team at the University of Arizona Genetics Core conducted the public testing for National Geographic's Genographic Project, which traced human ancestries through DNA samples. As a conservation biologist, he was tapped to join a research team that used DNA sampling to split the tortoise species, Gopherus agassizii, into two distinct species—G. agassizii (Agassiz’s desert tortoise, native to the Mojave Desert) and G. morafkai (Morafka’s desert tortoise, native to the Sonoran Desert). That work was published in 2011.

Edwards has continued his research on the tortoise south into Mexico, working collaboratively with stakeholders on both sides of the Arizona-Sonora border. Here, he is investigating whether there is actually a third species of tortoise.

Read more from this November 11 UA main page feature at the link below.

It was announced recently that Edwards will be named a Fisher Scientific Scholar of Excellence. Sponsored by both Fisher Scientific and BioTech Express, the award recognizes "the contribution of research by the awardee as selected by their peers (prior year awardee). The intention is to fund an iteration of an experiment (up to $2000) that is either high risk/high reward or first in-kind, and that can begin to stage a new area of insight or clarification of an idea in the life sciences." The award will be presented to Edwards at the UA Frontiers in Immunology and Immunopathogenesis Symposium on March 8.

If you are interested in contributing to matching funding for this year's award, please contact Adam Buntzman at buntzman@email.arizona.edu.

Date released: 
Feb 6 2013
Contact: 
Taylor Edwards