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Memory of Lonesome George Lives on One Year Later

One year ago today Lonesome George, a giant Galapagos tortoise from Pinta Island, died in captivity at Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island. He was widely believed to be the last of his kind.

Lonesome George was one of the islands’ most famous residents. He was discovered and brought to the Charles Darwin Research Center in 1971; it was the first sighting of a Pinta tortoise since 1906. Repeated breeding efforts failed and when Lonesome George died in 2012 he was over 100 years old, the average lifespan for a tortoise his size.

But since his death there has been some silver lining. In November a Yale research team announced they’d discovered 17 hybrid tortoiseson Isabella Island with Pinta tortoise genes. They also identified 280 hybrids with Floreana tortoise genes—the Floreana Island tortoise has been considered extinct for more than 100 years.  The DNA sampling involved a team of 50 scientists and 1,669 tortoises, an estimated 20% of Isabella’s tortoise population.

Further DNA studies have shown at least one Pinta hybrid has an 80% Pinta gene match, and one Floreana hybrid has a 90% gene match. These high percentages make it likely scientists can come close to reversing natural selection. Additionally, because some of the individuals are as young at 15 years old there is a chance purebreds may still exist somewhere on the island.

But breeding efforts will will take time. Galapagos tortoises reach sexual maturity when they're between 20 and 30 years old, and they can live longer than a century. And of course, Lonesome George himself never produced offspring.

The body of Lonesome George is currently being embalmed at the Museum of Natural History in New York. When completed, he’ll return to the Galapagos for museum display.

Thanks to Mark Putney for the title image of this blog.

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