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There May Be Hope For The ‘Lost’ Tortoises Of the Galapagos

Jun 09, 2017 07:18 AM EDT
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Descendants of the giant Galapagos tortoise have been hanging out and living it up on the side of a volcano for the past few hundred years, and scientists think breeding these animals might save the species from extinction.

At one time, the Galapagos archipelago was home to 15 different species of giant tortoise. Then, a pack of vacation-hungry humans showed up and ruined what little paradise the tortoises had left. Three centuries of human depredation cleared out more than 90 percent of the islands' tortoises. Four species, including Pinta and Floreana tortoises, were thought to have completely disappeared. But thanks to a little meddling, researchers discovered a secret tortoise hangout on the remote Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island.

According to a recent report published on bioRxiv, while reviving a species that was previously declared extinct is rare, researchers have found a remote volcano in the Galapagos filled with tortoises, 144 tortoises, to be exact, with a solid ancestry to the Chelonoidis elephantopus, the Floreana tortoise.  

"In total, we encountered 144 individuals with saddle-backed morphology," said the lead researcher. "Of those, 112 were released after taking blood samples, and 32 with pronounced saddle-backed morphology were transported to the Galápagos National Park Service's captive tortoise breeding facility on Santa Cruz Island."

Within the next few decades, researchers hope to return C. elephantopus tortoises to Floreana Island to continue their job as engineers of the island's ecosystems.

"Our discovery raises the possibility that the extinct Floreana species could be revived," the report continued. "In this case, tortoises with Floreana ancestry are living 'genomic archives' that retain the evolutionary legacy of the extinct species, removing the need for the cloning methods that have been proposed to bring back extinct species."

The Floreana breeding program is expected to generate thousands of offspring within the next few decades.

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