Lonesome George, the last of the Pinta Island saddleback tortoises, died in 2012 after living for over one hundred years. Though George is gone, his species may not suffer the same tragic fate. Scientists are hard at work reviving the Pinta Island saddleback, also known as Abingdon Island tortoise, through selective breeding of related species found on nearby Galapagos islands.
Before European contact, eight species of tortoises are believed to have lived on the Galapagos Islands. At least three species have gone extinct as overall tortoise population fell from 250,000 in the 1500s to a low of around 3,000 in the 1970s. In the 19th century, tortoises were stored aboard ships to provide a long-lasting source of protein. Tortoises can survive for a year without food or water, an ideal trait for long voyages at sea. In their transportation of tortoises, these sailors provided scientists with the key that might revive the Pinta Island saddleback tortoise.
19th century sailors would have preferred saddleback tortoises over their domed cousins because of their accessibility. Saddlebacks were easier to carry and lived in lower elevations than the domed tortoises. They also were said to have tasted better. After gathering saddlebacks from various islands, sailors would often dump the tortoises they did not need into Banks Bay, near Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island in the Galapagos. Although far less adept at swimming than their sea turtle brethren, the tortoises were able to float on their backs to the nearby islands, where they established a colony of tortoises closely related to the Pinta Island saddleback tortoise.
In 2008, scientists discovered 17 of the Isabela Island tortoises possessed high levels of Pinta Island DNA. Last month, scientists returned to Isabela Island to gather more of these Pinta Island relatives. They believe that after only a few generations of breeding, there may be tortoises which possess up to 95 percent of the extinct Pinta Island genetic code. The return of tortoises to Pinta Island will be a boon to its ecosystem, which benefits from the tortoise’s ability to disperse seeds and nutrients across the environment.