July 22, 2008

Endangered Galapagos Tortoise Mates After 36 Years

A notorious Galapagos tortoise given the nickname "Lonesome George", because of his decades-long refusal to procreate, shocked his keepers on Monday by mating with one of his two female companions.

The Pinta island tortoise has shown little interest in reproducing during 36 years in captivity, and experts say he may finally help save his species from extinction.

Park rangers discovered a nest with several eggs in George's pen "” three were placed in incubators. It will take about four months to know whether the eggs bear George's offspring.

The park said in a statement that even if these three eggs are fertile and the born tortoises survive it will take several (genetic) generations to think of having a Pinta purebred ... even centuries.

At 60 to 90 years old, George is in his sexual prime and should be able to reproduce, but after trying almost everything from artificial insemination to having George watch younger males mate, his keepers had nearly lost hope.

A distant relative of George was found on another island last year, sparking hopes of another male for mating with some Pinta genes.

The visual differences of tortoises from different islands were among the features of the Galapagos that helped British naturalist Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution.

George was thought to be the last of his kind after fisherman and pirates slaughtered his species for food. Many consider him the world's rarest creature and a conservation icon.

The United Nations has continued efforts to protect the Pinta islands, as Ecuador has declared them to be at risk.

Some 20,000 giant tortoises of various species now live on the islands.


Image Caption: Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta giant tortoise. Courtesy Wikipedia