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Española tortoises are the most genetically similar to Lonesome George, a tortoise from Pinta Island. Here, a Park ranger selects one of the Española females to become one of George’s companions.
The two females that were brought from Volcán Wolf, the northernmost volcano of Isabela Island, in October 1991 to provide breeding partners for Lonesome George were moved to another corral. They were replaced by two Española females (Chelonoidis hoodensis).
Twenty years ago, in an attempt to achieve successful reproduction by Lonesome George, the Galapagos National Park (GNP) decided to put tortoises 106 and 107, both brought from Volcán Wolf, in George’s corral. This decision was based on advice from various herpetologists. These females were selected due to their morphology, which was similar to Pinta tortoises, given that no genetic studies of Galapagos tortoises existed at that time.
However, in recent years, with the collaboration of Yale University, detailed genetics studies of Galapagos tortoises have been completed. The results of these studies indicate that although the Volcán Wolf females were morphologically similar, tortoises 106 and 107 are, in fact, hybrid tortoises and as such not the most ideal tortoises to mate with Lonesome George. The studies also showed that tortoises from Española are the closest genetically to Pinta tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni). Therefore, they are the most compatible and will provide greater potential for reproduction with Lonesome George, with the goal of obtaining individuals with a high percentage of Pinta DNA.
The two tortoises (106 and 107) that shared the corral with Lonesome George for 20 years were found to be hybrids between Volcán Wolf tortoises and those from Floreana, a subspecies considered extinct for more than a century. These two tortoises were moved into a special corral along with seven other tortoises also known to be hybrids with some Floreana ancestry.
The two Española females, numbers 7 and 13, have lived in captivity since the beginning of the Española breeding program. They now share a corral with Lonesome George and Park officials are hopeful that it will be possible to obtain hatchlings sired by Lonesome George during the next reproductive season. The breeding season is just starting and the nesting season will begin in late June. However, it is still possible for the Española females to lay eggs fertilized by Española males, so the DNA of any offspring would have to be analyzed before knowing if Lonesome George was indeed a new father.
Lonesome George, the only known Pinta tortoise in the world, lives in the GNP’s “Fausto Llerena Breeding and Rearing Center for Tortoises” in Santa Cruz.