An extinct species of Galapagos tortoise, whose last living example died in 2012 at age 100, may be resurrected with the genetic help of some close relatives, scientists say.
When the iconic tortoise dubbed Lonesome George — so-named because, as the last survivor of his species, he was alone — died on Pinta Island in the Galapagos, it meant extinction for the Pinta Island saddleback tortoise.
Found on Pinta in 1971 as the single living tortoise on the entire island, George was moved to Santa Cruz Island for protection.
Although he lived there for a further 41 years, all attempts to mate him to keep his species line alive failed.
However, scientists say they will breed tortoises from another of the Galapagos Islands species found to have the closest genetic makeup to the Pinta species, in an effort to return George's species to its native island.
In a survey conducted in 2008, living tortoises on Isabella Island, south of Pinta, were found to exhibit large amounts of Pinta tortoise DNA.
Some of them may be in the family tree of Lonesome George, researchers suspect, raising the possibility that carefully-managed breeding over several generations could create new animals that are close genetic matches for George, which could then be reintroduced to Pinta Island.
It should be possible to breed animals with 95 percent of the "lost" Pinta Island species' genes, say researchers who've brought 32 tortoises from Isabella Island — 11 males and 21 females — to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island.
Scientists have increasingly turned to genetic studies to further wildlife conservation efforts around the world.
However, in the case of the Galapagos tortoises, "this is the first time that genetic information has been used so determinedly," says Dr. Linda Cayot, science adviser for the Galapagos Conservancy.
Researchers say the surprising number of tortoises on Isabella Island showing close genetic similarity to Lonesome George and the Pinta Island species is encouraging.
It is likely they are descendants of Pinta Island tortoises moved between islands by whalers or other seafarers, who often took tortoises on their ships for food.
"The size of this population is mind-boggling," says Adalgisa Caccone, a Yale University researcher and the project's geneticist. "I am optimistic that some of these animals will have high conservation value."
If the breeding program goes well, new tortoise populations could be reintroduced to Pinta Island within five to 10 years, the researchers say.