Two species of giant Galapagos tortoises believed to be extinct might be resurrected thanks to new research findings, scientists leading the project say.
Located 600 miles off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the Galapagos Islands are known to house many unique species in isolation. Galapagos National Park applied sciences chief Washington Tapia says scientists are planning to revive the extinct Pinta Island and Floreana Island tortoises by selectively breeding genetic relatives in captivity, AFP reports.
At Wolf volcano on Isabela Island, scientists found 17 hybrid giant tortoises that have genes from the extinct Pinta Island tortoise, and about 280 hybrids with genes from the extinct Floreana Island tortoise, AFP reports.
At least one pair of tortoises with Pinta genes has 80 percent of the original species’ genes, while among the Floreana hybrids, many have up to 90 percent of the original genes.
“That gives us the possibility, literally, of bringing back these species which at the moment are considered extinct,” Tapia told AFP.
Tapia said experts plan on getting pairs in captivity to produce offspring as close to genetic make-up of their extinct ancestors as possible. Mating a female and male with 80 to 90 percent Floreana genes should produce offspring with about 95 percent of the genes from the original species.
“There is a chance, albeit remote, that we could end up with a male being produced with only original-species genes," Tapia said.
Time will be one of the greatest challenges for the project. Since giant tortoises have an average lifespan of 180 years, it should take about 120 years for all the data to be collected. The end goal would be to reintroduce the tortoise species back into their natural habitats.
Last June, “Lonesome Gorge,” a giant Pinta Island tortoise, died, National Geographic reports. Scientists believed he was the last of his kind until a Yale University study proved that 17 hybrid tortoises, some of which are juveniles, shared “Lonesome Gorge’s” genes.
"Even the parents of some of the older individuals may still be alive today, given that tortoises live for so long and that we detected high levels of ancestry in a few of these hybrids," Yale evolutionary biologist Danielle Edwards said.
If anything, the project may prove that there’s hope for extinct species.
"The word 'extinction' signifies the point of no return," senior research scientist Adalgisa Caccone wrote in the team's grant proposal. "Yet new technology can sometimes provide hope in challenging the irrevocable nature of this concept."