In June, Lonesome George, the last remaining Pinta Island tortoise, died at age 100. The news was especially sad because George was the last living member of his species. Or so it was thought.
Now, new research has suggested that the range of the Pinta Island tortoise was larger than previously estimated. Furthermore, evidence points to possible survivors of George's small clan.
A team from Yale University spent the summer collecting DNA samples from more than 1,600 giant tortoises on a remote island in the Galapagos. Once analyzed, the team discovered that 17 of the tortoises were hybrids of Chelonoidis abingdoni, or George's lost species.
One encouraging piece of the discovery was that five of the 17 hybrids were juveniles. Researchers hope that this means a purebred parent still survives.
"Our goal is to go back this spring to look for surviving individuals of this species and to collect hybrids," said Adalgisa Caccone, who is the senior author on the study. "We hope that with a selective breeding program, we can reintroduce this tortoise species to its native home."
The researchers believe that the purebred survivors may be living on a rocky and secluded section of remote Isabella Island, known as Volcano Wolf. More than 37 miles from Pinta Island, it is not likely that ocean currents could have carried tortoises to this location. Instead, they believe that 19th century whaling ships dumped the tortoises overboard in a nearby bay, once they were no longer needed as food reserves.
If Pinta Island tortoises are found at Volcano Wolf, it might allow conservationists to reestablish a species that is vital to the health of the Galapagos ecosystem.