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This Tortoise Is Extinct. Scientists Think They Might Be Able to Bring It Back

A genetic reprieve for one of the Galapagos Islands’ most famous species.

Lonesome George in 2007, five years before his death. Image via Flickr user putneymark

In June of 2012, the world mourned the death of Lonesome George. The Galapagos tortoise was around 100, scientists had determined, his passing was all the more tragic because researchers could not seem to find another living tortoise of the Pinta subspieces. (They offered a $10,000 reward for a female Pinta, but no one delivered.) “Park officials say they hope George’s death drives home the lesson that humanity must take greater care in interacting with other species,” The New York Times reported at the time.

Now, there is some hope. The Times reports this week that scientists believe they may be able to bring the Pinta subspecies of the Galapagos tortoise back to life. The break came in 2008, when researchers discovered a previously unknown population of tortoises on Isabela Island in the Galapagos archipelago. Sailors had dumped them there a century ago, it turned out, and DNA tests determined that at least 17 contained Pinta DNA.

Based on the genetic information gleaned from tests, researchers believe they will be able to breed tortoises with “with 95 percent of their ‘lost’ ancestral genes” in five to ten years.

Isabela Island, where scientists discovered a previously unknown population of tortoises. Image via Flickr user Harvey Barrison

In November, the scientists began searching the island for George’s long-lost relatives, and their expedition yielded 32 tortoises with the lost tortoise’s distinct shell shape. Now that these animals live in a breeding center in the Galapagos Islands, scientists are hoping for some baby-tortoise magic.

“[The tortoises] are very busy, very happy, exploring and doing aggression displays,” Yale University research scientist and geneticist Adalgisa Caccone told the Times. “Males stand on three legs, necks raised as high as they can go, and hiss at each other.” Clearly, the Galapagos subspecies is lonely no more.

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