/ 23 July 2008

Fabled bachelor tortoise may finally be a father

Lonesome George, the conservation icon of the Galapagos Islands and last surviving tortoise of his kind, may finally become a father, after keepers recovered a clutch of eggs from his enclosure.

Rangers at Galapagos National Park noticed George was behaving differently in recent months, and two weeks ago spotted one of his two female companions digging around in the soil in his pen.

On closer inspection, they discovered a nest containing nine eggs, three of which they transferred to an incubator. It will be 120 days before they are able to confirm whether the eggs are harbouring George’s offspring.

George was rescued in 1972 from Pinta, one of the islands off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, but has shown little interest in reproducing, much to the dismay of weary ecologists who are keen to prevent his species from becoming extinct.

The tortoise, the world’s rarest creature, became famous after fishermen and pirates slaughtered the rest of his species for food.

If the eggs hatch and are proven to be George’s offspring, it will represent a landmark success for conservationists, who are keen to rescue the species from imminent demise and re-establish the tortoises on Pinta.

Giant tortoises were once the largest herbivores on the island, and in their absence plant life has continued to grow unchecked.

The two females George shares his pen with are from the nearby volcanic island of Isabela, so any offspring will have only half the genes of a Pinta tortoise. It would take a breeding programme several generations — and possibly more than 100 years — to recreate a ”pure” Pinta, scientists said.

Henry Nicholls, author of the 2006 book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon, said tortoises often lay unfertilised eggs, in much the same way as hens do, but the fact that rangers had moved several to an incubator was a promising sign.

”There have been rumours of him mounting females, but nobody has ever witnessed penetration by George,” he said. ”Right now, we don’t even know if George is fertile.”

Conservationists have tried a variety of methods to get the tortoise to mate, including artificial insemination, manual stimulation and having George watch younger males mate. George, who is believed to be between 60 and 90 years old, should still be in his sexual prime.

Nicholls said even if the eggs are not fertilised, George’s keepers should dissect them to see if they could find any sperm, a sign at least that George may not be infertile.

Jeff Powell, a professor of ecology at Yale University who has worked on giant tortoises in the Galapagos, added: ”This is great news. The females have been with George for a long time, so if the eggs are fertilised, they will surely be his offspring.” — guardian.co.uk