Practically everyone is familiar with the iconic movie ‘Jurassic Park’. The major premise of the film is that genetically engineered dinosaurs are brought back from extinction using DNA found in prehistoric mosquitos that were trapped in fossilized amber. They used amphibian DNA to fill in the gaps and essentially bring several species back to life. While this is largely factious, could a species be brought back to life after they are completely gone? Scientists are currently asking that question about the resurrection of the Galápagos Tortoise.
Until now it was unlikely that scientists would be successful in giving life back to an extinct species. Out of eight species of Galápagos Tortoises (one recently discovered), at least three species are extinct. George, a Saddleback tortoise, was the last of his species roaming Pinta Island and was placed in an unsuccessful breeding program until his death in 2012. He was over 100 years old. George’s death marked the extinction of the Saddlebacks on three islands, as they had already disappeared on the other two islands that they inhabited, Florena Island and Santa Fe Island. Galápagos Tortoise populations plummeted in the 16th century from over 250,000 to just 3,000 in the late 1970’s. The decrease in the number of Galápagos Tortoise species was largely due to the fact that seafarers, such as pirates and whalers, removed them from their native lands to use them as ballasts and a source of food on long journeys.
Scientists recently discovered that there is a very close relative to George living on Isabela Island. There are two major groups of Galápagos Tortoises. The smaller tortoise type is known as a saddleback and evolved at lower elevations and the larger group is known as the domed tortoises, which live at higher altitudes and can weigh 300 pounds. More than a century ago, sailors dumped excess Saddleback tortoises that they did not need near Isabela Island in the Banks Bay, many of which made it to the island. The sailors preferred the smaller Saddlebacks because it was said that they were easier to carry and that they tasted better. Interestingly, they made the perfect ‘to go’ animal because they can live more than a year without food and water.
In 2008, scientists worked to collect blood samples and tag 1,600 tortoises on the banks of Banks bay on Isabela Island. DNA was extracted from the samples of eighty-nine tortoises. They were part of Florena saddlebacks and they matched the genetic profile to the Florena saddlebacks museum samples. The genetic profile indicated that there were indeed purebred Florena tortoises indicating that the species may have been given a premature extinction status. Additionally, there were 17 tortoises that had high levels of Pinta DNA, which indicate that they may be George’s kin.
Scientists now plan to capture these seventeen tortoises and create a breeding program on Santa Cruz Island to breed the animals that are closest to the original species. The result could be the resurrection of a species. Purportedly there is even a doppelganger of George, which adds even more hope in the resurrection of a species that was once considered lost. The Galápagos Conservancy team along with Dr. James Gibbs’ team from the State University of New York have a lot of work ahead of them.
During this exhibition in 2008, they discovered hotspots of saddlebacks. There are about 100 saddlebacks discovered. The next year could be promising. The teams are planning to analyze each DNA profile of the seventeen in the breeding program to find those with the most homology to prevent mixed ancestry. The goal is to breed purebreds and not to create a hybrid species. The DNA analysis will allow for the separation of saddleback species and the techniques and experienced gained could open up the breeding program to more saddlebacks in the future. Although not as far fetched as using blood ingested by mosquitos trapped in petrified amber, if successful, the breeding program could resurrect a species from the extinction list. This raises new questions in the application of this technology in regards to other species that are on the brink of extinction. The future looks bright and the possibilities are endless, however if we don’t do our part to minimize the effects of humans on all environments and have more man power, even if there is a possibility to resurrect or prevent a species from going extinct, the effort may be futile because the reality is that we are losing ground without raising awareness. That is why zoos matter and together our efforts do have an impact.