When the beloved giant Galapagos tortoise known as Lonesome George died, the world mourned not only him, but also the loss of an entire subspecies. Lonesome George was commonly believed to be the last living member of the Pinta Island tortoise family, and his death became a symbol of shrinking biodiversity as the world lost yet another species to extinction.
For decades, scientists at the Charles Darwin Research Station had tried to tempt Lonesome George into breeding with female tortoises of similar genetic makeup to create hybrid offspring, who would carry at least part of the Pinta genetic code. But all attempts were unsuccessful, and Lonesome George remained lonely.
But now, a new study from researchers at Yale University shows that perhaps Lonesome George was never alone, but simply separated.
After collecting DNA from more than 1,600 giant tortoises, researchers discovered 17 of them contained DNA connecting them to Lonesome George and the Pinta subspecies. Although the tortoises are hybrids (which is what would have resulted if scientists successfully bred Lonesome George), 5 are juvenile, meaning its possible their pure Pinta parents are still alive.
This means not only is there a hope that a Pinta tortoise is still alive somewhere in the Galapagos, but even if there is not, there is living DNA in the juvenile hybrids.
“Our goal is to go back this spring to look for surviving individuals of this species and to collect hybrids,” Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, senior author of the study and senior research scientist in Yale’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was quoted as saying in a press release. “We hope that with a selective breeding program, we can reintroduce this tortoise species to its native home.”
The hybrid tortoises were discovered in the northern area of Isabela Island, over 35 miles from Pinta Island, the native home of the Pinta tortoises where sailors likely raided and ate the island’s tortoises into near extinction in the early 1900s. In fact, until the discovery of Lonesome George in 1970s, the Pinta Island tortoise was believed to be extinct.
Researchers believe the same sailors that rid Pinta island of its shelled inhabitants were responsible for transporting them to Isabela Island. Tortoises served as an ideal food source during long sea voyages, as they can live up to 12 months without food. However, they can also weigh up to 600 pounds. One hypothesis is that sailors chucked these tortoises overboard when they needed to lighten their load.
Visitors to the Galapagos Islands are still able to see giant tortoises, mainly in the highlands of Santa Cruz.
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