‘Lost’ Galapagos Tortoise Species Could Make a Comeback

Score one for the giant tortoise: The descendants of one thought-to-be extinct species have apparently been chilling on the side of a volcano, eating grass for the last few hundred years. Scientists say breeding these animals could bring the species back from the brink. A report on the tortoise surprise was published on the preprint server bioRxiv.

Once upon a time, the Galapagos archipelago was a veritable paradise for 15 different species of giant tortoise. Then, humans showed up and the lumbering slowpokes began to disappear with alarming speed. Three centuries of human depredation wiped out 90 percent of the islands’ tortoises. Four entire species, including Floreana (Chelonoidis elephantopus) and Pinta (C. abingdoni) tortoises, completely disappeared. Or so we thought.

Then in 2008, DNA tests revealed that 105 of the tortoises living on Floreana Island had some C. elephantopus blood in their veins, mingled with ancestry from another species on the island. None of the tortoises were purebred, but scientists’ curiosity was piqued.

Seven years later, a team of 70 field researchers set out to see if they could find more. And there, on the grassy side of a volcano, they did: 144 tortoises with C. elephantopus’s distinctive saddle-shaped shell.

Blood tests from the volcano dwellers and six tortoises already in the islands’ captive breeding program revealed a rich field of Floreana tortoise DNA. Most of the samples included some of the thought-extinct species’ DNA, and two individuals appeared to be 100 percent, uncut C. elephantopus.

The researchers collected 23 of the tortoises, including the two apparent purebreds, and added them to the captive breeding program—after checking to make sure none of them were related. A few generations of baby tortoises would be enough to bring the species back.

Craig Stanford is a tortoise and turtle expert at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. He was not involved with the research but expressed excitement about the possibility of bringing Floreana tortoises back.

“We have the opportunity to restore a critically rare and biologically remarkable species to its natural habitat, which is an amazing chance that doesn’t come along very often,” he told New Scientist. “I’m cautiously optimistic about the odds of success.”

The paper’s authors note that the rogue population on the volcano’s slopes may be the result of the same human interference that obliterated the rest of the species. “Ironically, it was the haphazard translocations by mariners killing tortoises for food centuries ago that created the unique opportunity to revive this ‘lost’ species today.”

[h/t New Scientist]

Is There An International Standard Governing Scientific Naming Conventions?

iStock/Grafissimo
iStock/Grafissimo

Jelle Zijlstra:

There are lots of different systems of scientific names with different conventions or rules governing them: chemicals, genes, stars, archeological cultures, and so on. But the one I'm familiar with is the naming system for animals.

The modern naming system for animals derives from the works of the 18th-century Swedish naturalist Carl von Linné (Latinized to Carolus Linnaeus). Linnaeus introduced the system of binominal nomenclature, where animals have names composed of two parts, like Homo sapiens. Linnaeus wrote in Latin and most his names were of Latin origin, although a few were derived from Greek, like Rhinoceros for rhinos, or from other languages, like Sus babyrussa for the babirusa (from Malay).

Other people also started using Linnaeus's system, and a system of rules was developed and eventually codified into what is now called the International Code of Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN). In this case, therefore, there is indeed an international standard governing naming conventions. However, it does not put very strict requirements on the derivation of names: they are merely required to be in the Latin alphabet.

In practice a lot of well-known scientific names are derived from Greek. This is especially true for genus names: Tyrannosaurus, Macropus (kangaroos), Drosophila (fruit flies), Caenorhabditis (nematode worms), Peromyscus (deermice), and so on. Species names are more likely to be derived from Latin (e.g., T. rex, C. elegans, P. maniculatus, but Drosophila melanogaster is Greek again).

One interesting pattern I've noticed in mammals is that even when Linnaeus named the first genus in a group by a Latin name, usually most later names for related genera use Greek roots instead. For example, Linnaeus gave the name Mus to mice, and that is still the genus name for the house mouse, but most related genera use compounds of the Greek-derived root -mys (from μῦς), which also means "mouse." Similarly, bats for Linnaeus were Vespertilio, but there are many more compounds of the Greek root -nycteris (νυκτερίς); pigs are Sus, but compounds usually use Greek -choerus (χοῖρος) or -hys/-hyus (ὗς); weasels are Mustela but compounds usually use -gale or -galea (γαλέη); horses are Equus but compounds use -hippus (ἵππος).

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

An Ice Age Wolf Head Was Found Perfectly Preserved in Siberian Permafrost

iStock/stevegeer
iStock/stevegeer

Don’t lose your head in Siberia, or it may be found preserved thousands of years later.

A group of mammoth tusk hunters in eastern Siberia recently found an Ice Age wolf’s head—minus its body—in the region’s permafrost. Almost perfectly preserved thanks to tens of thousands of years in ice, researchers dated the specimen to the Pleistocene Epoch—a period between 1.8 million and 11,700 years ago characterized by the Ice Age. The head measures just under 16 inches long, The Siberian Times reports, which is roughly the same size as a modern gray wolf’s.

Believed to be between 2 to 4 years old around the time of its death, the wolf was found with its fur, teeth, and soft tissue still intact. Scientists said the region’s permafrost, a layer of ground that remains permanently frozen, preserved the head like a steak in a freezer. Researchers have scanned the head with a CT scanner to reveal more of its anatomy for further study.

Tori Herridge, an evolutionary biologist at London’s Natural History Museum, witnessed the head’s discovery in August 2018. She performed carbon dating on the tissue and tweeted that it was about 32,000 years old.

The announcement of the discovery was made in early June to coincide with the opening of a new museum exhibit, "The Mammoth," at Tokyo’s Miraikan National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation. The exhibit features more than 40 Pleistocene specimens—including a frozen horse and a mammoth's trunk—all in mint condition, thanks to the permafrost’s effects. (It's unclear if the wolf's head is included in the show.)

While it’s great to have a zoo’s worth of prehistoric beasts on display, scientists said the number of animals emerging from permafrost is increasing for all the wrong reasons. Albert Protopopov, director of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Sakha, told CNN that the warming climate is slowly but surely thawing the permafrost. The higher the temperature, the likelier that more prehistoric specimens will be found.

And with average temperatures rising around the world, we may find more long-extinct creatures rising from the ice.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER