Galapagos tortoise: a resurrection from extinction?

Galapagos tortoise became extinct after June death of Lonesome George. But scientists say cross-breeding could bring Galapagos tortoise back.

Galapagos National Park/AP/File
In this 2008 file photo released by Galapagos National Park, a giant tortoise named 'Lonesome George' is seen in the Galapagos islands, an archipelago off Ecuador's Pacific coast. Lonesome George, the late reptile prince of the Galapagos Islands, may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species after all.

Lonesome George, the late reptile prince of the Galapagos Islands, may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species after all.

Researchers say they may be able to resurrect the Pinta Island subspecies by launching a cross-breeding program with 17 other tortoises found to contain genetic material similar to that of Lonesome George, who died June 24 at the Pacific Ocean archipelago off Ecuador's coast after repeated failed efforts to reproduce.

Edwin Naula, director of the Galapagos National Park, said in a telephone interview on Thursday that the probability is high it can be accomplished.

"It would be the first time that a species was recovered after having been declared extinct," Naula said.

But it won't happen overnight.

"This is going to take about 100 to 150 years," Naula added.

Scientists took DNA samples from 1,600 tortoises on Wolf volcano, and found the Pinta variety in 17, though their overall genetic makeup varied.

Through cross-breeding, "100 percent pure species" can be achieved, said Naula, a biologist.

He said the 17 tortoises were being transferred from Isabela island, where the volcano is located, to the park's breeding center at Santa Cruz, the main island on the archipelago whose unique flora and fauna helped inspire Charles Darwin's work on evolution. The results are to be published in the journal Biological Conservation, the park said.

The study on Wolf volcano was conducted by Yale University and the Galapagos park with financial help from the Galapagos Conservancy.

In a news release, the park said scientists speculate that giant tortoises from Pinta island might have arrived at Wolf volcano after being taken off by whaling ships for food and later cast overboard.

At least 14 species of giant tortoise originally inhabited the islands' 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) off Ecuador's coast and 10 survive.

A visit to Lonesome George became de rigueur for celebrities and common folk alike among the 180,000 people who annually visit the Galapagos.

Before humans arrived, the islands were home to tens of thousands of giant tortoises. The number fell to about 3,000 in 1974, but the recovery program run by the national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation has succeeded in increasing the overall population to 20,000.

Lonesome George's age at death was not known, but scientists believed he was about 100, not especially old for a giant tortoise.

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