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UCLA Scientist Finds Surprise About Tortoises' Long Lives

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A sign reads 'Slow For Tortoise' in Joshua Tree National Park, May 18, 2020 (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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A struggling population of tortoises native to the Mojave Desert has led UCLA scientists to rethink how to save threatened species.

The region’s tortoise population has been on the decline in recent decades despite conservation efforts. Experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been relocating the animals to protected areas for years, but survival rates remain low.

Evolutionary biologist Brad Shaffer, director of UCLA’s La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, says that he recently discovered some surprising information about what’s best for the tortoises. After studying 20 years worth of data comparing living and dead tortoises, he expected to find that they were safest if they weren’t moved too far from their natural habitats.

Instead, he found that a common trait among the surviving tortoises was genetic diversity.

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“Where [they] came from just didn’t matter at all,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer and his colleagues scrutinized the data for bias, but the results remained consistent.

Shaffer hopes further research into genetic diversity can help other SoCal wildlife such as bison and bighorn sheep.