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Expedition to Wolf Volcano to Search for Tortoises Begins

November 18, 2015

Scientists preparing for Wolf Expedition

GNPD technicians and scientists prepare the corral that will hold the
hybrid tortoises with Pinta and Floreana genes from Wolf Volcano. 

A group of more than 40 participants, including national and international scientists, and technicians and rangers from the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD), departed today to the northwest coast of Isabela Island. They will begin a ten-day expedition to search for at least 40 tortoises currently living on Wolf Volcano, all of which have a high percentage of genes from the extinct Pinta and Floreana tortoise species. Washington Tapia (Galapagos Conservancy), Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative and advisor to the GNPD, will lead the team of researchers in this first major expedition to initiate the restoration of two island ecosystems through the return of tortoises.

Approximately 5,000 tortoises live on the western and southwestern slopes of Wolf Volcano. In 2008, scientists collected blood samples from 1,726 of these tortoises for genetic analysis and marked the tortoises with microchips (PITs – Passive Integrated Transponders) for future identification. Subsequent DNA analysis revealed that over 100 tortoises are hybrids between the Wolf tortoise species (Chelonoidis becki) and the extinct species of Pinta and Floreana Islands, respectively.

Based on these results, the expedition team plans to capture 15 tortoises with hybrid genes (of 17 known animals) from the species C. abingdonii — Lonesome George’s extinct species from Pinta — and 25 tortoises (from a group of more than 80) with genes of the species C. elephantopus of Floreana Island, which went extinct more than 150 years ago. Data indicate that some of the younger hybrids had one pure Pinta or Floreana tortoise parent, providing hope that full-blooded Pinta or Floreana tortoises may still be out there. Blood samples will be collected from unmarked animals with similar shell shape to the known hybrids for additional genetic analysis to identify even more hybrid tortoises, and perhaps a pure Pinta or Floreana animal.

Ten separate camps will be established within a 45-square-mile area on the western flank of the volcano, from 500 feet in elevation up to 3,600 feet. Since adult hybrid male tortoises of the C. elephantopus species can weigh up to 400 lbs, while the C. abingdonii species weighs more than 200 lbs, tortoises found during the expedition will be flown by helicopter to the Park’s boat, the Sierra Negra, which will be anchored in Banks Bay.

Aboard the Sierra Negra, several scientists will take biological samples from the tortoises and conduct treatments to eliminate internal and external parasites as part of the quarantine procedures in preparation for the journey to the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island. Upon arrival at the Breeding Center, the tortoises will be placed in separate pens according to the target species (Floreana or Pinta).

Environmental Goals

One of the two main project objectives is the restoration of both Pinta and Floreana Islands. Giant tortoises are considered the “ecosystem engineers” of Galapagos due to their role as primary herbivores and their massive size, which impacts the areas that they inhabit. Repopulating islands where they have disappeared is essential for island restoration.

Another objective of the program is the long-term recovery of both tortoise populations, through jump-starting them with tortoises containing many of the original genes. As generations of tortoises reproduce on both Pinta and Floreana, new island species will evolve, as close as possible to the originals.

“The very possibility of restorting two extinct species is the main incentive to continue to work in protected areas,” commented Alejandra Ordoñez, director of the GNPD.

Watch this space, and the GC blog, for updates on the outcome of this exciting expedition.

Content based on the press release from the Galapagos National Park Directorate, translated with their permission.

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