Recovery of a nearly extinct Galápagos tortoise despite minimal genetic variation.

  • publication
  • 08-03-2013

Milinkovitch MC, Kanitz R, Tiedemann R, Tapia W, Llerena F, Caccone A, Gibbs JP, Powell JR. Evol Appl 2013 Feb;6(2):377-83. 10.1111/eva.12014. PMC3586625.

A species of Galápagos tortoise endemic to Española Island was reduced to just 12 females and three males that have been bred in captivity since 1971 and have produced over 1700 offspring now repatriated to the island. Our molecular genetic analyses of juveniles repatriated to and surviving on the island indicate that none of the tortoises sampled in 1994 had hatched on the island versus 3% in 2004 and 24% in 2007, which demonstrates substantial and increasing reproduction in situ once again. This recovery occurred despite the parental population having an estimated effective population size <8 due to a combination of unequal reproductive success of the breeders and nonrandom mating in captivity. These results provide guidelines for adapting breeding regimes in the parental captive population and decreasing inbreeding in the repatriated population. Using simple morphological data scored on the sampled animals, we also show that a strongly heterogeneous distribution of tortoise sizes on Española Island observed today is due to a large variance in the number of animals included in yearly repatriation events performed in the last 40 years. Our study reveals that, at least in the short run, some endangered species can recover dramatically despite a lack of genetic variation and irregular repatriation efforts.

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