It will take time, but experts believe that the now-extinct Pinta tortoise, a Galápagos tortoise species, can be resurrected through the genetic makeup of its close relatives.
Scientists plan to breed tortoises from Chelonoidis donfaustoi, a tortoise species in Santa Cruz Island, to genetically match the Pinta tortoise.
Yale University scientist Adalgisa Caccone said it may be possible to create tortoises with 95 percent of the Pinta DNA.
All these are possible because of an unexpected discovery in Isabela Island seven years ago.
In 2008, at least 1,600 tortoises found in Isabela Island showed genetic similarity to Lonesome George, a Pinta tortoise that died in 2012. Lonesome George was famous as he was the last surviving tortoise of his species.
Scientists collected blood samples from the Isabela Island tortoises. About 89 percent of these tortoises were part Floreana. Floreana tortoises were considered extinct by 1850.
Approximately 90 percent of the Isabela Island tortoises were also found to have genetic material closely matching that of Pinta tortoises. About 17 of the tortoises even showed high levels of Pinta DNA, scientists said.
By analyzing genetic samples, researchers discovered that the DNA of the Galápagos tortoise species C. donfaustoi closely matches the DNA of Lonesome George.
Washington Tapia, the director of a tortoise restoration initiative at Galápagos Conservancy, said it may take about 200 to 300 years to fully restore Pinta and Floreana tortoises, but this does not bring him down.
"I am absolutely convinced that there are enough tortoises in captivity and in the wild to do this," said Tapia, a Galápagos native.
Dr. Linda Cayot, another member of the Galápagos Conservancy, said manipulating genetics may not only help bring back Pinta tortoises, but it may also have long-term environmental outcomes such as wildlife conservation.
The next step for scientists now is to analyze the Isabela Island tortoises' DNA to separate the species and find the ones with the least mixed ancestry. If successful, the breeding program can begin.
Galápagos tortoises are distinguished easily by two different characteristics: some tortoises are domed, some are saddlebacked. Lonesome George was a saddlebacked Pinta tortoise. Scientists are mostly focused on finding saddlebacked tortoises as these were thought to disappear from Floreana Island a long time ago. As it turns out, saddlebacked tortoises are now roaming around Isabela Island. Luckily, these were the tortoises discovered in 2008.