Long ago, huge tortoises plodded across the islands of the Galapagos in vast numbers, but over 100,000 of the gentle giants were killed by whalers and pirates for their particularly tasty meat. Seafarers also introduced alien species to their lands, which compete with them for food and steal their precious eggs. As a result, some species of Galapagos tortoise have disappeared entirely.
Lonesome George was the last member of Chelonoidis abingdonii, aka the Pinta giant tortoise, and sadly died in 2012 at the age of 102. But now, scientists have found a female tortoise with remarkably close genetics to Lonesome George – it’s believed she could be a direct descendant of a tortoise from the extinct species and perhaps, this parent is still alive somewhere.
The team from the Galapagos National Parks and Galapagos Conservancy also stumbled upon 29 giant tortoises related to a different extinct reptile, the Floreana giant tortoise (Chelonoidis niger). The group was comprised of 11 males and 18 females.
The researchers looked at tortoises on Wolf Volcano – the highest peak in the Galapagos – on Isabela Island. It is believed that many tortoises were dumped here by pirates and whalers in a bid to lighten their ship’s load. Today, over 10,000 tortoises are thought to roam the area.
Conserving the Galapagos giants is important because they are a keystone species, meaning they have a disproportionately big effect on their surrounding environment. They help to maintain and control plant life by eating plants, trampling on them, and dispersing their seeds.
Thankfully, conservationists are working hard to protect these unique tortoises and boost their numbers. For example, a successful breeding program has brought the population of Española giant tortoises (Chelonoidis hoodensis) up from just 14 wild animals to over 2,000. Diego, a tortoise who sired hundreds of hatchlings, played an instrumental role and is set to be released back on his home island next month at the age of 100.
The possibility that both Pinta and Floreana giant tortoises could be alive and well in the Galapagos is certainly exciting, but could prove false. Still, extinct giant tortoises have been discovered on the islands before. In February 2019, a Fernandina giant tortoise, long thought extinct and not seen since 1906, was spotted in the Galapagos. Perhaps other species consigned to history are waiting to be rediscovered amongst the foliage on this unique archipelago.