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Extinct 'Lonesome George' Tortoise Species May Be Brought Back To Life With Help From Relatives

Dec 17, 2015 09:37 AM EST
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Lonesome George -- the infamous tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galápagos Islands -- died in 2012 at more than 100 years old, marking the extinction of his species. While George is gone, biologists may be able to resurrect his species with the genetic help of newly discovered relatives.

George was found living alone on Pinta Island in 1971. He was immediately moved to Santa Cruz Island for protection and lived for another 41 years, but all breeding efforts made to pass on his species' genes failed.

However, researchers with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative have begun exploring new ways to revive George's species (Pinta Island tortoise) and will begin breeding tortoises from another Galápagos Island species that bears a similar genetic makeup. Their hope is that they will be able to reintroduce the tortoises to their island of evolution within a decade, according to Discovery News.

A study conducted in 2008 revealed tortoises living on Isabella Island, south of Pinta, had high levels of Pinta DNA -- and since these animals can live for more than 150 years, some of them may even be George's next of kin. Last month, scientists went back to the island to collect the DNA of these tortoises and brought 32 tortoises -- 21 females and 11 males -- back to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island. They suspect that careful breeding over several generations could create new animals with 95 percent of their "lost" ancestral genes.

"The size of this population is mind-boggling," Adalgisa Caccone, a senior research scientist at Yale University and the expedition's geneticist, said, according to The New York Times. "I am optimistic that some of these animals will have high conservation value."

Even though genetics is a key component of conservation management, this is the first time it will be used so determinedly, researchers say. Efforts to revive the species will not be easy, but if successful it will benefit both the tortoises and Pinta Island, as the slow-moving animals disperse seeds and boost vegetation growth.  

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New Giant Tortoise Found On the Galapagos Islands; Better Conservation Called For, Researchers Say

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