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Bringing the Galapagos tortoise back from the dead: Long-lost species could be returned to Floreana Island through a captive breeding programme

June 2, 2017 4:12 PM
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In the mid-19th century, a species of giant tortoise unique to Floreana Island in the Galapagos was thought to have become extinct.

But conservationists believe they can bring back the species, almost 170 years after it vanished.

A captive breeding programme has now started with 23 tortoises housed on Santa Cruz Island, California, with the aim of soon returning the animals to their home on Floreana Island.

In 2008, researchers from State University of New York discovered tortoises with saddle-shaped shells living on Isabela Island – the main island in the middle of the Galapagos.

An analysis of the DNA of these tortoises showed that they were descendants of Floreana and Pinta tortoises.

This match in DNA raised the possibility of bringing back Floreana and Pinta species through captive breeding.

Following on from this, in 2015, the researchers returned to Isabela Island in search of more tortoises linked to Floreana and Pinta.

There they found 32 tortoises with promising ancestry, and took these to a captive breeding centre on Santa Cruz Island in California.

Further genetic testing indicated that two of these 32 tortoises are possibly purebred Floreana.

Now, 23 tortoises are being capitevely bred in the hopes of returning purebred Floreana tortoises to their home.

Some 15 species of Galapagos giant tortoises once existed, but only 11 survive today, after populations were wiped out by the arrival of humans in the mid-19th century.

And while the Floreana island tortoise became extinct around 1850, others have only recently vanished, such as the Pinta Island tortoise, which lost its last remaining member, George, just five years ago.

Thankfully, conservationists believe that both the Floreana and Pinta tortoises could be brought back to their islands in the near future.

Both species have distinctive 'saddle-shaped' shells, which evolved to allow the tortoises to elongate their necks to reach food.

And in 2008, researchers from State University of New York discovered tortoises with similarly shaped shells living on Isabela Island – the main island in the middle of the Galapagos.

An analysis of the DNA of these tortoises showed that they were descendants of Floreana and Pinta tortoises that the researchers believe moved between the islands on ships.

This match in DNA raised the possibility of bringing back Floreana and Pinta species through captive breeding.

Following on from this, in 2015, the researchers returned to Isabela Island in search of more tortoises linked to Floreana and Pinta.

There, they found 32 tortoises with promising ancestry, and took these to a captive breeding centre on Santa Cruz Island in California.

Further genetic testing indicated that two of these 32 tortoises are possibly purebred Floreana.

Dr James Gibbs, a vertebrate conservationist at the State University of New York, who led the expedition to retrieve the tortoises, said: 'We have discovered a trove of extremely unusual tortoises that although extinct on their islands of Floreana and Pinta island, but they actually still occur in this remote site.

'It may be George was not the last of his species. What we have found is there is a lot of Pinta hybrid tortoises on Volcan Wolf.

'The purpose of this expedition is to go out, find these tortoises, bring them into captivity and start to breed them.

Now, 23 tortoises are being capitevely bred in the hopes of returning purebred Floreana tortoises to their home.

In their paper, published in bioRxiv, the researchers, led by Dr Joshua Miller from Yale University, wrote: 'Our discovery raises the possibility that the extinct Floreana species could be revived.

'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 tortoise breeding program is anticipated to generate thousands of offspring over the next few decades.

Also read: See the sun return to Antarctica after months of darkness

Source: dailymail.co.uk

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