Seeing the world's biodiversity shrink as the number of extinct animals rises is more than just a little depressing. But this week there is some positive news. A team of international researchers led by scientists at Yale University are on track to bring back at least one animal from the dead – the Floreana tortoise (Chelonoidis elephantopus).
The tortoise was once indigenous to Floreana Island, which is some 900 kilometers (559 miles) off the Pacific coast of Ecuador. Charles Darwin visited the island in 1835 and not long after that, the giant reptiles went extinct. Most were killed for their meat or oil. Others died as a result of foreign species, like rats and cats, brought onto the island by humans. The Floreana is one of four giant tortoises to have been declared extinct.
This is an extremely rare opportunity to resurrect an extinct animal, only possible because the Galapagos Islands are home to giant tortoises with highly similar ancestry to the Floreana. This is something we have Victorian mariners to thank for.
Old records show that whalers and pirates dropped large numbers of Floreana tortoises in Banks Bay, near Volcano Wolf, to lighten their load. The expat tortoises mixed with native species to produce the ancestors of animals still around today.
“The irony is that these species have a second chance for the same reason that they died out — their handling by mariners some 200 years ago,’’ explained Yale's Adalgisa Caccone, senior author of the paper.
The researchers announced in Nature that they'd found enough giant tortoises with similar DNA to begin a breeding program. There are 32 individual tortoises in total, hand-picked based on how closely their genes match those of the Floreana. Two, in particular, are extremely close relations to the Floreana. So close, in fact, that the researchers admit they could be purebreds, meaning the Floreana might not actually be extinct.
Exciting as it is, it will take generations for the experiment to work - if it does at all. “Of course, it is easier and faster to destroy than to restore,” said Caccone.
As well as being good news for the biodiversity of the region, the introduction of the Floreana would be a big boost for tourism. And if it's successful, the researchers have their eyes on another type of giant tortoise, the Pinta.
For now, it's a waiting game.