Yale scientists will begin a breeding and rearing program to resurrect Pinta Island tortoise specie, whose final surviving member died in June, 2012.

Originally there were at least eight species of turtles in Galapagos, in which at least three of them have become extinct. The last tortoise of Pinta Island was the Lonesome George, which was discovered in 1972 and taken into custody by the authorities of the island. With the death of this centennial turtle, it was believed that native species of Pinta Island had died out completely.

Lonesome George, the last native turtle of Pinta Island in the Galápagos, back in 2007. Photo: Mark Putney/Flickr/Wikipedia

But now, the history of Galapagos tortoises has taken an unexpected and hopeful twist. As part of a scientific expedition, the team of Galapagos Conservancy, an organization dedicated to the conservation of ecosystems of the archipelago, found a species of turtle that was not in their records.

In 2008, the same organization labeled and collected blood samples from different species, in which they found about 1,600 tortoises living around the Wolff volcano. There were located at least 17 tortoise that share the same characteristics of the late George.  Turtles can live for over 150 years, so it is possible that some of them are relatives of George.

Last month they decided to return to the volcano to capture and separate the tortoises that had high levels of DNA of the missing Pinta Island tortoises. In there they located not just 17, but 32 turtles containing the same genetic charge. The captured tortoises include 21 females and 11 males, each weighing 100 to 300 pounds. Most appear to be 30 to 40 years old, though a few could be much older.

Within a few generations it will be possible to obtain turtles that are up to 95% of the “lost” ancestral genes, the scientists said.

Dr. Linda Cayot, scientific adviser to the Galapagos Conservancy, said that genetics is increasingly a key role of conservation management worldwide.

With the captive breeding program, it is possible that in 5-10 years, new populations of turtles are released on Pinta Island, helping to restore their lost ecosystems, since tortoise sails near the land, dispersing seeds and other nutrients that maintain the land healthy, said Dr. Cayot.

The process will be slow. They must first analyze the DNA of each tortoise and determine which are the purest, and later start with the pairing process. However, this will be worthwhile to save these species and return to a Lonesome George moving through the islands that were fundamental in the theory of evolution of the British, Charles Darwin.

Source: The New York Times