Cryptic variation and the tragedy of unrecognized taxa: the case of international trade in the spiny turtle Heosemys spinosa (Testudines: Geoemydidae)




Loss of habitat and human exploitation have driven many turtle species to the brink of extinction, particularly in many parts of southern Asia. The spiny turtle (Heosemys spinosa) is a terrestrial species distributed throughout the Sundaland region of South-East Asia. Despite international legislative protection, H. spinosa continues to be illegally collected for the food and traditional medicine markets of China. Given its widespread distribution, taxonomists have reasonably questioned whether H. spinosa truly represents a single evolutionary lineage or multiple undiagnosed species. Recently, a large and illegal shipment of rare, wild-caught H. spinosa was confiscated in Hong Kong, China, and the turtles were eventually distributed to several zoos and academic collections. Based on analyses of these individuals, along with additional individuals from the pet trade and museum collections, we found concordant genetic and phenotypic variation, indicating that two distinct types of H. spinosa exist in this collection of turtles. Further characterization of this variation will require field surveys and the collection of additional morphological and genetic data from specimens of known geographic provenance. However, our data indicate that this highly exploited, endangered species may contain additional cryptic taxa, and emphasize the critical need for systematic evaluation of species before unrecognized variation is lost forever.

© 2012 The Linnean Society of London, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2012, 164, 811–824.