2 Pictures Photos Of Animals Found In The Transfrontier Park The Evolution of Extinction

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The Evolution of Extinction

When you think of the Galapagos, the first two thoughts that come to mind are Charles Darwin and giant tortoises. The giant tortoise is the iconic symbol of these islands. The name Galapagos comes from a Spanish world for saddle – referring to the shell of these gentle giants. The national park uses an image of a giant tortoise as its logo. Every time you see information about the Galapagos – see photos of the beloved giant tortoise.

The largest tortoises in the world, Galapagos Tortoises have a long lifespan of 150 years. Male turtles are known to be over 600 kilograms. The archipelago was never connected to a continent and all the plants and animals that arrived in the Galapagos did so by swimming, flying or swimming. Traveling across the ocean was too difficult for the grazing mammals that dominate the grasslands of other parts of the world, and so the slow-moving turtle reigned as king for thousands of years.

At the time of Charles Darwin’s visit in 1835, there were thought to be 250,000 turtles and 12 subspecies. It was the comments about the turtles from the local deputy governor, who was first dismissed by Darwin, that would later come to inspire him:

“I have not yet noticed the most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago; it is that the different islands are to a considerable extent inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first drawn to this fact by the Deputy Governor, Mr. Lawson, stating that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could tell with certainty from which island any had been brought in. For some time I did not pay sufficient attention to this statement, and I have now mixed up the collections of the two islands. I never dreamed that the islands, some fifty or sixty miles apart, and most of them facing each other, formed of exactly the same rocks, situated under quite a similar climate, rising to a height of almost equal, would have been otherwise hired, but we shall soon see that this is the case. It is the lot of most travelers, the sooner they discover what is most interesting in any locality, than to rush from it; Perhaps I should be grateful that I have obtained sufficient material to prove this most remarkable fact in the distribution of organic beings.”

Darwin and his shipmates aboard the Beagle viewed turtles in the same way as pirates and whalers, turtles were something to be exploited. The members of the Beagle harvested 30 turtles from the islands, which they ate on the way home.

Over the past several centuries, the systematic harvesting of turtles for meat, oil, and the introduction of new species reduced the population by about 90% of what it was at the time of Darwin’s visit. Both the Floreana and Pinta tortoises are listed as extinct and all 10 remaining Galapagos tortoise species are listed as endangered.

In 1959, 100 years after Darwin’s first publication on the origin of species, the Galapagos Islands became a national park. The park service, along with the Darwin Foundation, has made tremendous strides over the past 50 years toward the preservation, conservation, and restoration of native species.

Perhaps the best example of their efforts is the story of the Espanola turtle. At one time there were at least 3,000 native turtles on the island of Espanola. However Espanola is one of the flattest and most accessible islands, making it a favorite place for ships to cross. As a result, by 1965 there were only 14 turtles left living in Espanola – 2 males and 12 females. The turtles were transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Station in Santa Cruz. A third male was later discovered at the San Diego Zoo. In the 1970s, the turtle breeding program began. From the brink of extinction, out of 15 turtles, the program has been a success and today around 1,500 Espanola turtles have been repatriated to their native island.

With the success of the Espanola program, stopping the extinction of other species proved more problematic. In 1971, Lone George was discovered at Pinta. It has the unique distinction of being marked as the last of its species. George moved to the Darwin station and scientists began to work on the question of how to prevent the extinction of the Pinta turtle. Two females from Wolf Volcano in Isabela were staked with George. These females were chosen as they were found to be genetically the closest relation to George and although each spring produced would not be pure blood – the species would somehow continue.

For years, George showed little or no interest in these women. But in 2008, the national park announced that both of Geroge’s companions had laid eggs. The world awaited news of whether the Pinta race had been saved. At the end of the year it was announced that none of the eggs were viable and their search for a way to save the species continued.

In 1994, a team of scientists from Yale began the Galapagos Tortoise Genetics Process. The group went to Isabela and took blood samples from 27 turtles living high up on Ujkut Volcano. About 2,000 turtles are thought to live in and around Wolf. These turtles are of considerable interest, as here turtles resemble more than one subspecies. Normally, each group of turtles will either have a dome-shaped shell (similar to Alcedo’s turtles or other parts of Isabela) or a spine-shaped shell (similar to Lonesome George) depending on the environment they live in. However, near the Wolf, turtles can be found with dome and saddle shells.

Over the next decade, the genetics team began collecting DNA samples from turtles not only on Isabela, but also began sampling turtles at Darwin Station, around the Galapagos, and turtles held in captivity around the world. At Pinta they found they took DNA samples from the remains of 15 turtles and they cataloged the information to better understand the species.

As they began to review their database, the impossible seemed possible. First they believe they have discovered a second purebred Pinta turtle. A tortoise known as Tony, thought to be around 50 years old, lives in Prague Zoo – from all current records Tony appears to be the exact same subspecies as George.

As they sifted through the DNA information, they discovered the reason why the Wolf Turtles seemed to resemble more than one subspecies. Isabela and the area near Wolf Volcano was often the last stop for pirate ships in the Galapagos. It appears that these ships collected turtles on other islands during their stay only to dump them here. During testing of DNA samples, some of the turtles living at Wolf were found to be first-generation hybrid Pinta turtles — turtles born to Isabela mothers and Pinta fathers. This discovery meant that some of the turtles living on the Wolf were 50% the same genetic subspecies as Lonesome George. This information gave new hope that further investigation might find a pure-blood or half-blood female Pinta tortoise – and the Pinta breed might survive.

The genetics team seemed to have discovered a miracle – there were still more surprises to come. The research revealed the descendants of the extinct Floreana tortoise. The Floreana subspecies became extinct during the early 20th century due to human activities, and unlike the solitary George, no known examples are known to have survived. However, the DNA research revealed 9 turtles with a high percentage of Floreana genome (up to 94%) and they believe that 1 turtle may even be pure blood. Of the turtles identified as being from Floreana, 6 are female and 3 are male, all of which currently reside at the breeding center in Santa Cruz.

Taking from the success of the Espanola breeding program these new findings of the Genetics team, one may now be able to make up for some of their previous missteps. What once disappeared may not disappear in the future. It’s all a matter of time with the help of science and mother nature.

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