January 28, 2012
Galapagos lives up to its fame of being a “living laboratory of nature”... The Scientific world was pleasantly rocked this week when Galapagos National Park authorities and Yale University Researchers announced the discovery of positive DNA tests, proving that more than 80 individuals among a sampling of 1600 giant tortoises from the remote and harsh Volcano Wolf, on the northern tip of Isabela Island, definitely were direct offspring of the “Chelonidis elephantopus” species, long ago thought to have been exterminated by pirates and whalers, who extinguished them from their original home, Floreana Island, over 150 years ago.
The researchers and National Park staff revealed that this fresh discovery evidences the fact that several purebred, original Floreana Island giant tortoise individuals, (“Cheolonids elephantopus”, must be currently living somewhere in the remote wilderness of Wolf volcano and are responsible for the hybrid individuals found in such a considerable number, just by sampling blood from less than 20% of Wolf volcano’s tortoise population. The explanation for this is as factual as fascinating: there is documented evidence that during the times of buccaneers and whalers, large numbers of tortoises were loaded, alive, aboard their ships as a long-term food source. Furthermore, there are also accountings which would prove that, on certain occasions, on their last stop before heading to open seas (precisely in areas of northern Isabela Island, where Wolf Volcano is found), they would unload and abandon some of the previously collected tortoises, due to excess of weight for the often long and rough sea passages. Hence, the recently unveiled DNA tests prove that, evidently, some Floreana tortoises were left behind in this area, and these are the parents or grandparents of the individuals recently studied.
To make the story more interesting, some of the individuals who gave positive DNA genes for the Floreana species are around 15 years of age and “first generation crosses”, which increases the possibilities for finding purebred “Chelonidis elephantopus” individuals, still alive, in the Wolf Volcano area. This has prompted both international scientists as well as the National Park’s authorities to intensify the research and to eventually be able to start a program of rearing, in captivity, the pure Floreana individuals, to later restore them back to repopulate their island of origin. That would be a landmark for applied science and conservation management, according to well informed sources who were thrilled with the announcement.
The fantastic news were disclosed on a paper published on a very recent edition of the “Current Biology” specialized Journal. Scientists who have been studying Galapagos tortoises for decades, like Linda Cayot, a senior science adviser to the Galapagos Conservancy, said that these were “the most exciting news that I have seen for the Galapagos in a long time. To have back a species that was thought to be extinct since the middle of the 1800’s is simply amazing”. The scientists believe that while they did not find one purebred Floreana individual on this two year expedition and research journey, they were “very lucky” to have found these hybrids which are the living evidence of the existence of real pure individuals living in the area. Now they are planning, together with the Ecuadorian authorities, to hold a workshop in Galapagos to discuss what can be done now, prior to sending a new expedition back to Wolf in late 2012, looking for the pure Floreana tortoises.
The Galapagos giant tortoises are not only one of the unique species which aided Charles Darwin to develop his theory of evolution, but they have become the main icon and symbol of the fantastic Ecuadorian Archipelago set 600 miles off-shore, across from mainland Ecuador and one of the World’s Natural Wonders of these days. Furthermore, the Galapagos were the first natural location to be declared by UNESCO, back in 1979, as a World Natural Heritage Site and boast additional titles such as Biosphere Reserve and Whale and Cartilaginous Fishes’ Sanctuary, besides being one of the most popular and fascinating tourism destinations in Latin America and the world, for nature-loving voyagers.