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Extinct species of giant tortoise may be resurrected

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Conservationists believe they can bring back a species of giant tortoise unique to Floreana Island in the Galapagos and considered extinct since the mid-19th century.

Galapagos giant tortoises are sometimes divided into 15 species, 11 of which survive today. The tortoise populations on all the islands were decimated after humans arrived in the archipelago and began loading them onto ships for their meat. They also brought animals such as rats, which can prey on young tortoises, and goats, which destroy their habitat.

It is thought that tortoises were moved between the islands on ships. Even though some mated with local tortoises and produced hybrids.  In 2015, scientists returned to Wolf volcano to look for more tortoises with Floreana and Pinta ancestry. They carried out blood tests on 144 individuals.  From this they then took individuals to  a captive breeding centre.

Genetic tests suggested that two of the tortoises may be purebred Floreana tortoises – which might imply that the Floreana species is not actually extinct. Alternatively, the two may have had very recent purebred ancestry. Another 63 are thought to have Floreana ancestry, but none appear to descend from Pinta.

Conservation biologists have begun a captive breeding programme with 23 tortoises now housed at the breeding centre, with the aim of returning tortoises to Floreana Island.

It’s an exciting project, says Craig Stanford, chair of the Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “We have the opportunity to restore a critically rare and biologically remarkable species to its natural habitat, which is an amazing chance that doesn’t come along very often,” he says. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the odds of success.”

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