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Endangered river turtle's genes reveal ancient influence of Maya Indians
Date:7/21/2011

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 recent paper 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 Gracia Gonzlez-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, Gonzlez-Porter and her colleagues say, is that for centuries humans have been bringing them together. The turtles have been used as food, in trade and in rituals for millennia, widely transported and customarily kept in holding ponds till 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. mawii was a very important source of animal protein for the ancient Mayans of the Peten (Preclassic period 800-400 B.C.). And it is possible that these turtles were part of the diet of the Olmec culture more than 3,000 years ago."

One specimen of D. mawii was found in an ancient Teotihuaca
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Contact: John Gibbons
gibbonsjp@si.edu
202-633-5187
Smithsonian
Source:Eurekalert  

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