Monday, January 9, 2012

Hope for Lonesome George

Could "Extinct" Race of Tortoise be Reborn?

Lonesome George is the last known individual of the Pinta Island Tortoise, one of eleven subspecies of Galapagos tortoise native to the Galapagos Islands. He has been labelled the rarest creature in the world, and is a potent symbol for conservation efforts in the Galápagos and internationally. It is thought that he was named after a character played by American actor George Gobel.

Scientific Discovery
Reported Today

For more than 150 years, the lost species of giant tortoise, called Chelonoidis elephantopus, was thought to have been extinct.   Scientists have never given up their search for a mate for Lonesome George, but things had looked pretty grim until a recent discovery which was published today in the journal Current Biology.

The scientists analyzed the genome of a closely related species, Chelonoidis becki, which lives on Isabela Island, the largest of the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The island lies about 200 miles (322 kilometers) from Floreana Island, where C. elephantopus was last spotted before disappearing, likely due to hunting by whalers, some 150 years ago.

The two species of gigantic tortoise, both living in the Galápagos Islands (famously studied by Charles Darwin), have different shaped shells. The shells of C. elephantopus on Floreana Island were saddle-shaped while tortoises on other islands, including C. becki, had domed-shaped shells. These giant tortoises can weigh nearly 900 pounds (408 kilograms) and reach almost 6 feet(1.8 meters) in length.

Researchers have discovered tortoise that had shells shaped more like the saddle-shaped variety and after further research have identified that there is a hybrid race of offspring.  They found that 84 of the tortoises had genetic indicators that one of their parents was a C. elephantopus, 30 of which were less than 15 years of age. Given the 100-year lifespan of the tortoises the researchers say there is a good chance that their C. elephantopus parent would still be alive.

If this hidden tortoise population can be located, scientists can establish a breeding program and regenerate the race.   Perhaps Lonesome George won't be lonesome forever.

Cruising the Galapagos Islands is one of the most amazing cruises we've ever taken.   We walked where Charles Darwin studied, saw unique species which can only be found on those islands, and saw Lonesome George and other Galapagos Tortoise of all ages.

Search for "Galapagos" to find more blog articles about our Galapagos Xpedition cruise.

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