Lonesome George May Not Be The Last Of His Species

Yale researchers discover other Galapagos tortoises with same genetic material.

Lonesome George May Not Be The Last Of His Species
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Lonesome George May Not Be The Last Of His Species

When Lonesome George -  the famous giant Galapagos tortoise - died earlier this year, it was believed that he was the  last of his species.  But Yale University researchers say other tortoises of the same species may still be alive.

During his long life on the Galapagos Island of Pinta, Lonesome George was an icon of the conservation movmement.  He was described by the Guiness Book of Word Records as "the rarest living creature".  

Lonesome George died last summer. 

Yale University researchers, who had been trying to save the species from extinction, collected DNA from more than 1600 giant tortoises in a remote location in the Galapagos . And they've now discovered 17 tortoises with genetic material in common with Lonesome George. 

Dr. Danielle Edwards is a postdoctoral research associate at Yale.  "Tortoises have been identified as critically important for the ecological balance for the islands in which they occur in the archipelago. And there are now hopes that we could in fact find pure bred individuals or at least first generation offspring of those pure bred individuals that could well be used to establish a population of tortoises on Pinta Island".

Edwards says Lonesome George has become a symbol of how humans have been involved in a great loss of biodiversity.

"We're still involved in a great loss of biodiversity.  And given that he was the last individual of his species, I guess he just captured the world's imagination of exactly what we've done and perhaps we could turn it around.  Unfortunately for him that wasn't the case, but with these results it kind of suggests that perhaps we can."

Yale researchers plan to return to the Galapagos next year, and hope to begin a captive breeding program to try and restore the species.

The Yale study is published in the journal Biological Conservation.

For WNPR, I'm Diane Orson.