After 150 years of being “extinct,” a species of giant tortoise may be on the verge of a comeback tour, scientists report today (Jan. 9).
The researchers “found” the lost species, called Chelonoidis elephantopus, by analyzing the genome of a closely related species, Chelonoidis becki, which lives on Isabela Island, the largest of the Galápagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The island lies about 200 miles (322 kilometers) from Floreana Island, where C. elephantopus was last spotted before disappearing, likely due to hunting by whalers, some 150 years ago.
The researchers noticed in 2008 that some of the C. becki shells were more saddle shaped than domed shaped, and found that these were hybrid offspring from matings between the two species. They took samples for genetic analyses from 1,669 of the large tortoises on the island, about 20 percent of their population.
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.
If the researchers can find this hidden population, they could capture individuals to set up a breeding program to regenerate the species, the authors write in the paper published Jan. 9 in the journal Current Biology. They could even try to resuscitate the species from the genetic snippets found in C. becki.
In an interesting twist, the researchers aren’t sure how the giant tortoises would have gotten from Floreana Island to Isabela — they suggest the animals may have been brought to Isabela as food and then either thrown overboard or left on the shore.
Source: Yahoo! News
Image: The Telegraph