By definition, it’s not so often we encounter a “rare opportunity to resuscitate a species that we thought we’d lost”- but Yale scientists working on reviving some lost species via what has been nicknamed “The Lazarus Project” may have stumbled upon such an opportunity with what is believed to have been an extinct tortoise.
Chelonoidis elephantopus were partially responsible for inspiring Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but it was thought the massive tortoises disappeared from the face of the earth a century and a half ago. In addition to being an easy kill for hungry seafarers, the large reptiles fell victim to habitat shrinkage and the introduction of predators to their territory. However, the researchers at Yale have discovered some hybrids in the Galapagos, and believe that a few pure vestiges of the extinct tortoise line may stil be roaming.
The beasts have unusually long lifespans, which could bolster the chances of a live one hiding out in the wild, and senior author of the study, Yale evolutionary biologist Adalgisa Caccone commented on the potential inherent in the DNA find:
“The only way these hybrids could be produced is if we had some pure[bred] animals still alive on the island…because some of these animals are hybrids, which are first-generation crosses… Theoretically, we can rescue a species that has gone extinct. We won’t be around to see it, but it can be done.”
If you’re rooting for the extinct tortoise, take heart- even if no purebred specimens turn up, it’s possible that scientists will be able to breed more of them over four generations- but as Caccone notes, that will take about 100 years. The findings were published in the January 10th edition of Current Biology.