Lonesome George, the last tortoise of his species, is not gone forever, since his genes survive in 17 tortoises living in a volcano in the Galapagos Islands, Ecuadorian officials said on Wednesday.

Lonesome George died June 24 of natural causes after living more than a century without scientists being able to get him to breed with females of similar species.

That fact seemed to sound the death knell for the species of giant Pinta Island tortoises known as Chelonoidis abingdonii, but Galapagos National Park authorities revealed on Wednesday that nine females, three males and five young tortoises living in the Wolf volcano on Isabela Island share George's genes.

The park and Yale University scientists who made the discovery feel that it is possible that there are more hybrid specimens and even purebred individuals from Lonesome George's species somewhere in the archipelago.

"The discovery marks the first step toward the recovery of the ... species, through a program of reproduction and raising in captivity, an option that is being evaluated," the park directorship said.

Plans are now under way for a series of expeditions to the site to capture the 17 individuals and seek other hybrids and possible purebred specimens.

Scientists speculate that the arrival of tortoises to that island on the slopes of Wolf volcano could have occurred at the beginning of the 19th century.

At that time, crews on whaling vessels collected tortoises in various spots around the archipelago for food, but they threw some still living ones overboard when they did not need them any longer.

Lonesome George was a symbol of the Galapagos Islands and of the efforts to preserve its great biodiversity.

The Galapagos Islands, located in the Pacific Ocean some 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) west of the Ecuadorian mainland, served as a natural laboratory that inspired English scientist Charles Darwin to develop his theory about evolution, natural selection and the origin of species.

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