Late Lonesome George, last of his species, may have living relatives
In 2012, a giant tortoise lovingly known as Lonesome George passed away at the ripe old age of 100(ish). The death was made even sadder by the fact that George was the last known member of his species, and the Pinta Island tortoise was declared extinct. But now, genetic studies have revealed that tortoises on neighboring islands in the Galapagos carry on the lineage – and hint that surviving members may be hiding somewhere.
George was first discovered in 1971, as the only tortoise still alive on the island of Pinta. He was soon moved to a research station on another island in the Galapagos region, where he lived for 40 more years. It was later determined that he was the last of his species in the world, and after several unsuccessful attempts to mate him with females of closely-related species, he passed away in 2012, taking his species with him.
But this may not be the end of the Pinta Island tortoise after all. A recent expedition, conducted by Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, has now found evidence that George may still have living relatives out there.
The team of 45 park rangers and scientists journeyed to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, which is known to be home to a large number of hybrid tortoises. After collecting and analyzing 50 blood samples from the animals there, the researchers identified 30 tortoises of interest – 29 of them were found to have partial lineage of a tortoise species called Chelonoidis niger, which once lived on Floreana Island but is also now considered extinct.
It’s the last tortoise, however, that’s particularly exciting. This one was found to have a “high genetic load” of Chelonoidis abingdonii – the species that Lonesome George belonged to. While this young female was still a hybrid with another species, she only seemed to be one generation removed from a “pure” Pinta Island ancestry.
Better yet, she was found to be relatively young. Since we know that George didn’t have any offspring in the last 40 years of his life (plus he lived on a different island), it suggests that there’s still a purebred Pinta Island tortoise wandering around somewhere on Isabela Island.
The 30 tortoises were transferred to a breeding center on another island, where it is hoped that they can help restore some of the lost diversity in the Galapagos region. The hunt for the Pinta Island tortoises will also no doubt continue.
Source: Galapagos Conservancy