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Giant Tortoise Update from Galapagos Conservancy

Reprinted with kind permission from Galapagos Conservancy

 Floreana breeding tortoise banner image © Wacho Tapia.

Floreana breeding tortoise banner image © Wacho Tapia.

After more than a decade of exploration and genetic analysis, a new breeding program has been established to restore the Floreana Island tortoise, Chelonoidis niger — a species that was exploited to extinction on its home island nearly 150 years ago.

In 2015, scientists traveled to Wolf Volcano — the northernmost volcano of Isabela Island — to search for tortoises with partial ancestry from the extinct Floreana Island tortoise species. Following that expedition, 19 tortoises that were transferred from Wolf to the tortoise breeding center on Santa Cruz were found to have genetic ancestry of the Floreana tortoise species.

Based on these promising results, the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) established four breeding groups of tortoises at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz Island earlier this year. The goal is to establish a healthy, reproductive tortoise population on Floreana over the next 40-50 years, which is part of a larger plan for the ecological restoration of Floreana Island.

How Did Floreana Tortoises Get on Wolf Volcano?

Like the majority of Galapagos giant tortoise populations, the Floreana tortoise population was decimated by pirates and whalers in the 1700s and the first half of the 1800s. These mariners amassed live tortoises in the holds of their ships to serve as fresh meat on their long sea voyages. In the 1800s, whalers apparently "abandoned" tortoises at Banks Bay at the western foot of Wolf Volcano for a variety of reasons — including having ships too full of whale oil, or needing to throw tortoises overboard in preparation for conflicts or quick getaways.

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Following the exploitation by the whalers and other mariners and the subsequent use of the remaining tortoises by settlers, the Floreana tortoise went extinct around 1850. But by leaving some Floreana tortoises on Wolf Volcano, there is now a "treasure trove" of tortoises that can be used to restore the Floreana tortoise population on their island of origin.

Next Steps for Floreana

Of all 17 main Galapagos Islands, Floreana is the one most altered by the activities of humans over the past few centuries. In addition to restoring giant tortoises to the island, the Floreana Restoration Project will include the eradication of rodents and the re-establishment of other native species that have disappeared from the island over the last century and a half — such as the Floreana mockingbird and the native snake. Tortoises are an important missing component of the Floreana ecosystem, as they greatly affect the plant community and thereby many different plant and animal species. Their return is vital to the overall island restoration.

The project to restore tortoises to Floreana is part of Galapagos Conservancy's Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI), our long-term collaborative effort with the GNPD to rebuild tortoise populations to historical numbers across the Archipelago. This and other conservation projects in the Islands are made possible by the support of individuals like you. We are grateful to all of you who have helped and who continue to help us protect the incredible wildlife and ecosystems of the Galapagos Islands.

For Galapagos,

Linda J. Cayot
Science Advisor

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