When Charles Darwin first visited the Galapagos Islands, a huge species of tortoise roamed freely across the island of Floreana. A few years after his departure, the species died out due to overuse by humans. They ate the turtle meat and also pushed them out of their natural habitat. The Galapagos giant tortoise was thought to be long extinct. But now, scientists believe they have found individuals still alive on another volcanic island. Ones that may have been abandoned there by pirate sailors long ago.
The Long Gone Galapagos Giant Tortoise to Make a Comeback
While there are still examples of the Galapagos giant tortoise on Floreana Island, they are mostly hybrids of other turtles from different islands within the chain. None of them are pure examples of the original species examined by Darwin. Geneticists know this because century old specimens found within museums showed a pronounced saddleback on the Floreana tortoise. Most of the modern ones on the island do not have that feature.
However, a 2002 expedition to the extinct Wolf Volcano on the isle of Isabella found several large saddlebacked tortoises. The DNA samples collected inspired scientists to start a second expedition in 2008. This found a variety of different types of turtles on Isabella Island. At the same time, the team took over 1,600 blood samples to determine if any of these animals were directly descended from those on Floreana.
These blood tests were a match to the DNA of the museum samples. The theory goes that buccaneers and whalers, who considered the Galapagos giant tortoise a tasty meal, stashed some of them on Isabella. There, the turtles must have they gradually intermingled with the native species.
In 2015, researchers carried out one more expedition in search of samples from a Pinta Island species of saddleback, and more of the Floreana species. While they found no Pintas, they did detect enough Floreana genes that they believe they can use them to help a true saddleback tortoise come back to life.
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