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Galapagos tortoise 'Lonesome George' might NOT be last of his kind

'Sailor's snack' had some cousins nearby

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"Lonesome George", the giant tortoise believed to be the last of his species when he died in June, may not have been as lonseome as they say.

Scientists on the Galapagos islands have found 17 other tortoises that appear to be closely related to the Pinta Island Giant Tortoises, and have similar genetic traits to George. Some of them may even be from the same genus as George, say the boffins.

The discovery of the similar genetic material means there could be "additional hybrids on the Wolf Volcano, and even individuals on Pinta that could be pure," the scientists said.

Yale scientists have identified nine females, three males and five youths with genes of the Pinta Island Giant Tortoise species, says a statement from the Galapagos National Park, reported by AFP.

Given that humans rarely get on with distant relatives, the existence of these hybrid cousins may not have reduced George's feelings of loneliness. However, it means that some of his genes at least remain in the tortoise gene pool.

Apparently tortoise boffins were aware of a number of hybrid Giant Tortoises since 2008, three years before George passed away, but felt that the Giant Tortoise genes would be so diluted by any possible union that it wasn't worth the effort of getting the 100-year-old to try to mate with one. And that even if he did there probably wouldn't be enough progeny to resuscitate the species.

Researchers analysed more than 1,600 DNA samples taken in 2008 from tortoises living on the Wolf Volcano, on Isabella Island and compared them to George's DNA and samples taken from the Pinta Tortoise Museum.

Giant Tortoises were believed to have numbered close to 300,000 in the 18th century, but sailors who snacked on the the slow-moving animals and introduced invasive species such as rats to the islands meant that their numbers went into sharp decline.

The heartless 18th century sailors treated the large, slow-moving tortoises like living snack larders, taking them away on journeys and chucking the shells overboard after they had eaten them. ®

The research on giant tortoises will be published in the upcoming issue of the journal Biological Conservation. ®

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