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'Extinct' humongous Galapagos tortoise could be making a comeback

A genetic analysis of a Galapagos tortoise revealed DNA from a related species thought to have gone extinct 150 years ago, suggesting that the two species are mating and producing hybrid offspring. 

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This tortoise is thought to be a hybrid of C. becki and C. elephantopus, a species native to Floreana Island some 200 miles away and previously thought to be extinct. Genetic analysis of tortoise population on Isabela Island suggests purebred individuals of C. elephantopus are still alive on Isabela.

Courtesy of Yale University

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After 150 years of being "extinct," a species of giant tortoise may be on the verge of a comeback tour, scientists report today (Jan. 9).

The researchers "found" the lost species, called Chelonoidis elephantopus, by analyzing the genome of a closely related species, Chelonoidis becki, which lives on Isabela Island, the largest of the Gal├ípagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean. The island lies about 200 miles (322 kilometers) from Floreana Island, where C. elephantopus was last spotted before disappearing, likely due to hunting by whalers, some 150 years ago.

The two species of gigantic tortoise, both living in the Gal├ípagos Islands (famously studied by Charles Darwin), have different shaped shells. The shells of C. elephantopus on Floreana Island were saddle-shaped while tortoises on other islands, including C. becki, had domed-shaped shells. These giant tortoises can weigh nearly 900 pounds (408 kilograms) and reach almost 6 feet(1.8 meters) in length.

Finding hybrids

The researchers noticed in 2008 that some of the C. becki shells were more saddle shaped than domed shaped, and found that these were hybrid offspring from matings between the two species. They took samples for genetic analyses from 1,669 of the large tortoises on the island, about 20 percent of their population.

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