Efforts on to revive Galapagos tortoises once thought extinct

Updated 18 June 2013
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Efforts on to revive Galapagos tortoises once thought extinct

Scientists will try to revive two species of giant Galapagos tortoises thought to have been extinct by breeding genetic relatives in captivity, experts leading the effort said.
The Galapagos Islands, located 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, are famed for the large number of species that have developed there in isolation.
New research techniques have revealed that at Wolf volcano on Isabela Island, 17 hybrid giant tortoises have been found with genes from the extinct Pinta Island tortoise, and about 280 hybrids have been found with genes from the extinct Floreana Island tortoise.
Among those with Pinta genes, at least one pair has 80 percent of the original species’ genes, while among the Floreana hybrids, many have up to 90 percent of the original species genes.
“That gives us the possibility, literally, of bringing back these species which at the moment are considered extinct,” Galapagos National Park applied sciences chief Washington Tapia told AFP.
Giant tortoises have life spans of up to 180 years, growing to 1.8 meters (five feet nine inches) long and nearly 400 kilograms (880 pounds) in weight.
Last year the body of “Lonesome George,” a giant Galapagos tortoise once believed to be the last of its kind, was sent to New York after its death to be embalmed and then returned home.
A rare Pinta Island giant tortoise discovered in 1971, George was estimated to be a century old when he died June 24, 2012. At the time, he was believed to be the last of his kind.
The Floreana Island tortoise was widely thought to have been extinct for more than 100 years. One of their last sightings was by British naturalist Charles Darwin when he visited the Galapagos in 1835.
Darwin studied the tortoises, which evolved in isolation, as he developed his theory of natural selection.
Now Tapia’s team is eyeing something of reverse natural selection: bringing back to life animals technically considered to have died out.
He said that experts will soon start trying to get pairs in captivity to produce offspring close to their genetic origin. But due to the lengthy lifespan of the animals, Tapia said that he will not live to see the results: true to the slow pace tortoises are famous for, it should take about 120 years to get all the data in.
The female tortoises reach sexual maturity at around 20-25 years, and males at around 25-30. Tapia said that mating a female and male with 80-90 percent Floreana genes should produce offspring with about 95 percent of the genes of the original species.
With the Pintas, “there is a chance, albeit remote, that we could end up with a male being produced with only original-species genes,” Tapia said.
For now, the future of the Floreana lies with about 92 animals born in captivity since 2012. More testing has to be done to determine which have the greatest original-species genetic content so that those males and females can be bred.
Tapia said that one of the main goals is for the tortoises to be released back into their natural habitats as soon as possible, even as hybrids, so that they can help bring the ecosystems of the islands back into balance after they were disturbed by imported species, such as goats.

The Wolf hybrids have a salty story of their own: park officials believe the tortoises were taken to Isabela Island in the 17th and 18th century by pirates who picked them up to eat, but then decided they were no longer needed as a source of meat and tossed them overboard.


Scientists create bee vaccine to fight off ‘insect apocalypse’

Photo taken on August 2, 2018 shows a bee collecting pollen from a flower in Kirkkonummi, Finland. Scientists in Finland have developed what they believe is the world's first vaccine to protect bees against disease, raising hopes for tackling the drastic decline in insect numbers which could cause a global food crisis. (AFP)
Updated 16 December 2018
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Scientists create bee vaccine to fight off ‘insect apocalypse’

  • The vaccine, developed by a team at Helsinki University in Finland, works by giving bees resistance to fight off severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for pollinator communities

HELSINKI: Scientists in Finland have developed what they believe is the world’s first vaccine to protect bees against disease, raising hopes for tackling the drastic decline in insect numbers which could cause a global food crisis.
Bees are vital for growing the world’s food as they help fertilize three out of four crops around the globe, by transferring pollen from male to female flowers.
But in recent years bee populations around the world have been dying off from “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious scourge blamed on mites, pesticides, virus, fungus, or some combination of these factors.
UN-led research in 2016 found that more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators, particularly bees and butterflies, are facing extinction.
The study also found that 16.5 percent of vertebrate pollinators, such as birds and bats, are under threat.
Scientists warn that the die-off will result in higher food prices and the risk of shortages.

The vaccine, developed by a team at Helsinki University in Finland, works by giving bees resistance to fight off severe microbial diseases that can be fatal for pollinator communities.
“If we can save even a small part of the bee population with this invention, I think we have done our good deed and saved the world a little bit,” lead researcher Dalial Freitak said.
“Even a two-to-three percent increase in the bee population would be humongous,” she told AFP.
Vaccinating insects was previously thought to be impossible because the creatures lack antibodies, one of the key mechanisms humans and other animals use to fight disease.
But a breakthrough came in 2014 when Freitak, a specialist in insects and immunology, noticed that moths who are fed certain bacteria can in fact pass on immunity to their offspring.
“They could actually convey something by eating. I just didn’t know what the mechanism was,” Freitak said.
“I met with Heli Salmela, who was working on honey bees and a protein called vitellogenin. I heard her talk and I was like, ‘OK, I could make a bet that it is your protein that takes my signal from one generation to another’.”
The pair started to collaborate and created a vaccine against American foulbrood, the most globally widespread and destructive bee bacterial disease.
The treatment is administered to the queen bee via a sugar lump, similar to the way many children are given polio vaccines. The queen then passes the immunity to her offspring, spreading it through the bee community.
As well as working on vaccines against further diseases, the team has also begun trying to raise funding to make the vaccine commercially available, with “very positive” feedback so far, according to Freitak.
“There are many regulatory hurdles. Four to five years until reaching the market is an optimistic estimate,” she said.

Diseases are believed to be just one of a number of reasons for the loss of pollinators, alongside pesticides and intensive farming, which reduces the diversity of insects’ nutrition.
But the team believes that protecting bee populations against disease will make them stronger, and therefore better able to withstand the other threats.
The European Union and Canada have voted to introduce bans on insecticides based on neonicotinoids after studies showed the chemicals harmed the ability of bees to reproduce.
UN-backed research in 2016 estimated that up to $577 billion (511 billion euros) worth of food grown every year relies directly on pollinators.
The study said the volume of food produced that depends on pollinators has risen by 300 percent in the last half century.
As pollinator numbers have declined, some farmers have turned to either renting bees or pollinating by hand — as with fruit trees in some parts of China — in order to replace the processes that nature previously provided free of charge.
In Helsinki the project relied on external funding, but the team has now taken up a more secure tenure at Graz University in Austria, where further research on vaccinations will begin early next year.
Graz is also the previous seat of noted zoologist Karl von Frisch, whose discovery that honey bees communicate by performing the figure-of-eight “waggle dance” won him the Nobel Medicine Prize in 1973.