For the last century-and-a-half, a species of Giant tortoise native to the Galapogos Islands was believed to be extinct -- but in light of new DNA findings, scientists are echoing a very tortoise-y mantra: 'not so fast'. Although the species in question, Chelonoidis elephantopus, may have disappeared from sight 150 years ago, researchers recently found tantalizing genetic clues suggesting that they're not only still around, they are breeding with other Giant tortoises.
Studying the DNA of some existant C. becki tortoises on the Galapagos's Isabela Island, scientists discovered 84 individuals that appeared to be genetic hybrids with an 'extinct' C. elephantopus parent -- and as many as 30 of them were a mere 15 years old. This is evidence, say researchers, that somewhere on the island, a handful of long thought dead tortoises may be living it up and making babies.
From the Christian Science Monitor:
"To our knowledge, this is the first report of the rediscovery of a species by way of tracking the genetic footprints left in the genomes of its hybrid offspring," study researcher Ryan Garrick, who performed the work at Yale University, but is now assistant professor at the University of Mississippi, said in a statement. "These findings breathe new life into the conservation prospects for members of this flagship group."
Because of genetic differences between the hybrid tortoises, the researchers estimate that at least 38 C. elephantopus left behind hybrid descendants on the Galápagos Islands, and many may still be alive.
Researchers say they aren't quite sure how the 'extinct' species of tortoises ended up on an island not known to be its native home, but the surprising discovery is nevertheless offering renewed hope for a species believe lost to ages. If they are able to track down the shy band of purebred C. elephantopus tortoises, it is very likely that conservationists could help the species grow in numbers, this time under careful protection.
Still, let's be sure not to rush them.