While rummaging through genetic data from 156 Galapagos tortoises living in captivity, researchers have discovered that nine of them are descendents of Chelonoidis elephantopus, a species hunted to extinction by whalers in the 19th century, before Charles Darwin visited the islands. Now they hope to resurrect the extinct ancestors by selectively breeding their descendants, according to an article on PhysOrg.com, an online science news service.

The research was made possible thanks to the discovery of bones from Chelonoidis elephantopus found in several old museum collections. Samples of genetic material from the bones were then compared to data banks of DNA sequences from living tortoises, revealing that a lingering heritage still lives on in a few surviving individuals.

Researchers theorize that the nine identified living descendants of the vanished species are the grandchildren of lucky elephantopus survivors which may have been taken by whalers as future meals but then thrown overboard. Those last heroic survivors then must have come ashore to nearby islands and mated with the native species living there.

Although their genetic lineage has been diluted over time, researchers think the heritage is still strong enough to revive the extinct species after only four generations of selective breeding.

"Theoretically, we can rescue a species that has gone extinct," said Adalgisa Caccone, senior author of the study. "Our lab calls it the Lazarus project."

The only catch is that the project could take over 100 years to complete because tortoises have such long life spans. But the project could serve as a model for how to revive other extinct species that have surviving lineages too.

If the plan is initiated, a genetically identical member of C. elephantopus could once again walk along the shores of the Galapagos islands, over 300 years after its last ancestors were taken away.

Also on MNN: Lazarus species: 13 'extinct' animals found alive