Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Expedition explores remote Galapagos home of rare tortoises

Date: November 20, 2015
Source: SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Scientists have launched an expedition to a remote volcano in the Galapagos Islands to search out rare giant tortoises, some of which were found to carry the genes of two species thought, until recently, to be extinct.

Dr. James P. Gibbs, a conservation biologist at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York, who is part of the team, said the expedition is focused on rescuing some of the tortoises so they can be bred in captivity, paving the way for the re-establishment of two species that were believed to have vanished from the archipelago. The team departed Nov. 18 for a trip to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island.

"Our team from the Galapagos National Park Service, Yale University, and the Galapagos Conservancy discovered a small trove of extremely unusual tortoises on the remote Wolf Volcano on the northern end of Isabela Island," said Gibbs, shortly before he left Syracuse for the Galapagos. "There are actually thousands of tortoises native to the volcano there -- we don't know how many -- and amongst them are some rather special ones."

Gibbs credited his colleagues at Yale University with the genetic analysis that revealed in 2012 that some of the tortoises at Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island are descendants of the species of tortoises that are extinct on their native islands of Pinta and Floreana. The last known living Pinta tortoise was the famous Lonesome George. Floreana tortoises have not been seen for more than 100 years - Charles Darwin was one of the last to remark on them. Researchers launched a high-profile search for a mate for the iconic tortoise, but the effort was unsuccessful and Lonesome George died in 2012. Gibbs, who has worked with Galapagos tortoises since 1994, escorted George's body back to the United States to be taxidermied where it remains as preparations are made in Galapagos to build an exhibit hall for the tortoise.

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