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Scientists are trying to revive an extinct species of Galápagos tortoise

It might be a... slow process

Matt King/Getty Images

Lonesome George was the last Galápagos tortoise of his kind who lived on Pinta Island. His name was Lonesome George because he was alone; he died in 2012 after living for more than 100 years. It was a sad ending for George at the time, but it turns out that may not actually have been the ending for his species. Scientists are now hoping to revive the extinct Pinta Island saddleback tortoise, The New York Times reports.

The scientists' plan is to carefully breed living tortoises found to have the closest genetic makeup to the Pinta tortoise. The study of a species' DNA has long been a significant part of conservation, but "this is the first time that genetic information has been used so determinedly," Linda Cayot, science adviser for the Galápagos Conservancy, told the Times.

It's not a zombie tortoise

There were originally eight species of Galápagos tortoise on Earth, according to the Times, but three species — from the Pinta, Floreana, and Santa Fe islands — are now extinct. But bits of their genetic makeup still exist in the remaining species of Galápagos tortoise. In 2008, scientists collected blood samples from tortoises living near Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island. Eighty-nine of the 1,600 tortoises were found to have high levels of Floreana DNA, while 17 were found to have high levels of Pinta DNA, according to the Times.

Last month, a group of scientists traveled to Isabela Island to capture tortoises with distinct saddleback shells — a sign they would have the ancestral DNA the scientists were looking for. Then, the scientists brought 32 of these tortoises living near Wolf Volcano — 21 females and 11 males — to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, the Times reports. Next, the scientists will analyze the DNA to begin breeding tortoises with the most divergent genetic makeup.

But the process will take some time. The scientists claim it should take five to ten years for new tortoise populations to arrive on Pinta and Floreana islands. But it will likely take "a few generations" to breed tortoises that are a 95 percent genetic match to their "lost" ancestors.