Lonesome George may be dead, but scientists now say he may not be the last giant tortoise of his species on the Galapagos Islands after all.
Researchers said they may be able to resurrect the Pinta Island subspecies by launching a cross-breeding programme with 17 other tortoises found to contain genetic material similar to that of Lonesome George, who died on June 24 at the Pacific Ocean archipelago off Ecuador's coast after repeated failed efforts to reproduce.
Galapagos National Park director Edwin Naula said there was a high probability it could be accomplished. "It would be the first time that a species was recovered after having been declared extinct," he said.
But the effort could take 100 to 150 years.
Scientists took DNA samples from 1,600 tortoises on Wolf volcano, and found the Pinta variety in 17, although their overall genetic make-up varied. Through cross-breeding, "100% pure species" can be achieved, said Mr Naula, a biologist.
He said the 17 tortoises were being transferred from Isabela island, where the volcano is located, to the park's breeding centre at Santa Cruz, the main island on the archipelago whose unique flora and fauna helped inspire Charles Darwin's work on evolution. The results are to be published in the journal Biological Conservation, the park said.
The study on Wolf volcano was conducted by Yale University and the Galapagos park with financial help from the Galapagos Conservancy. In a news release, the park said scientists speculate that giant tortoises from Pinta island might have arrived at Wolf volcano after being taken off by whaling ships for food and later cast overboard.
At least 14 species of giant tortoise originally inhabited the islands 620 miles off Ecuador's coast and 10 survive.
Before humans arrived, the islands were home to tens of thousands of giant tortoises. The number fell to about 3,000 in 1974, but the recovery programme run by the national park and the Charles Darwin Foundation has succeeded in increasing the overall population to 20,000.
Lonesome George's age at death was not known, but scientists believed he was about 100, not particularly old for a giant tortoise.