New Tortoises for Galapagos Island

"Lonesome George," the last wild giant tortoise discovered on Pinta Island in the Galapagos, is still alive today.

Late last month, 39 giant tortoises were released on Pinta Island in the Galapagos Archipelago in an effort to restore the island's ecosystem. This is the first time in over 40 years that tortoises have been present on Pinta. The tortoise population declined at an accelerated pace with the settlement of the early island colonies in the 20th century. Their large weight (up to 660 lbs) and their long lifespan (up to 150 years) led them to be hunted for food until they were considered extinct. In 1971, scientists were shocked when they found one Pinta giant tortoise left. Removed in 1972, and named "Lonesome George," this tortoise remains the last of its kind.

The Galapagos National Park has been successful over the years in breeding some of the giant tortoise subspecies and releasing them back in the wild. But the 39 tortoises released last month are not the same breed as Lonesome George—they were sterilized before being released. So why release them? Because the giant tortoise is considered an ecosystem engineer, through as the GNP put it, "movement patterns, herbivory, and seed dispersal." The tortoises were literally carried back on to the island by park rangers, botanists, veterinarians, herpetologists, and a few students—all from the GNP, Houston Zoo, Galapagos Conservancy and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

As soon as they were placed on the island, the tortoises began to show their place as ecosystem engineers—foraging, feeding and even trying to mate. Three of the tortoises were tagged so that their movement patterns could be tracked. Four SUNY-ESF students will stay on the island for the next two months to help track them.

SOURCE: Retortoise Pinta.