Thought to be extinct, SUNY ESF professor-led team finds Giant Tortoise in Galapagos Islands

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WSYR-TV/WETM) — After nearly a decade of what everyone assumed was the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise, the species has been found once again, thanks to a SUNY ESF professor and his team.

This species of tortoise was thought to be extinct with the passing of Lonesome George in 2012.

“He was it. He was the last one. Found in 1970 he lived alone in captivity for 40 years while people searched for some solution,” Dr. James Gibbs tells NewsChannel 9.

Gibbs is a professor at SUNY ESF and also co-leads the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative.

He has spent years searching the world’s zoos and private collections for any Pinta Island tortoise but he and other scientists couldn’t find one there and no one had seen one in years on its native Galapagos Island.

“We hadn’t quite given up hope because without hope you can’t really keep working on restoring these creatures,” Gibbs explains.

In January, Gibbs helped organize and execute yet another expedition to the Galapagos Islands.

Finding tortoises is not the problem there; the Islands contain 15 different species, the only place these creatures live now, after being found around the world.

He says, “We were actually about to close down the expedition and sure enough the call came through and there she was, she’s actually a remarkably young tortoise, she’s about 30 or 40 years old and she’s just getting into the prime of life.”

The young female was found on Wolf Volcano, a large volcano on Isabela Island in the Galapagos.

Gibbs was working with ESF graduate and now project support specialist at the Galapagos Conservancy Harrison Goldspiel, along with a large team of park guards from the Galapagos National Park.

Gibbs helped identify the 30-year-old tortoise from among approximately 8,000 other tortoises living on and native to the volcano.

He says it’s not just his find but one for the world now and in the future.

Gibbs says the Pinta Island Tortoise is a major ecosystem engineer in the Galapagos Islands.

In total, the 45-member team found 31 tortoises believed to be partially descended from two formerly thought-to-be-extinct species: the Pinta Island tortoise (Lonesome George) and also the Floreana Island tortoise.

Gibbs says, “They’re on the point of starting to dig nests and lay eggs and they’re going to produce thousands of off-spring in the years ahead.”

Gibbs is a distinguished professor at ESF and also co-leads the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative, which is a collaborative effort with the Galapagos Conservancy and the Galapagos National Park Directorate, whose long-term goal of the initiative is to restore tortoise populations to their historical distribution and numbers across Galapagos, including on islands where tortoises went extinct.

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