She may have been their last hope, and now she is gone.
Chinese state media has said the last known female Yangtze giant soft-shell turtle has died, CNN reported. She was believed to be over 90 years old and died around 24 hours after researchers had tried to artificially inseminate her. While there were no complications with the process, an autopsy was to be performed.
Before the female turtle died, there were only four known Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles left in the world, the New Yorker reported in December. Now, there are three. Two other turtles live in the wild in Vietnam, though their sex is unknown.
Yangtze giant soft-shell turtles are the largest freshwater turtle species, weighing about 220 pounds. They have tiny, piglike snouts and large, smooth shells. The species once flourished in China and Vietnam, but human interference and poaching whittled their numbers to their now-disastrous levels, according to National Geographic.
“Destruction of their habitats, pollution and exploitation for food and perceived medical benefits all played an important role in their decline,” said David Steen of the Georgia Sea Turtle Center.
“The plight of Yangtze giant soft-shell, together with the plights of thousands of other declining and recently-extinct species, reminds us that we are living through a biodiversity and extinction crisis that requires bold and immediate action,” he said.
CNN, citing local outlet Suzhou Daily, reported that scientists would try to take ovarian tissue samples “for future use.”
The female turtle lived at the Suzhou Zoo with another of the last remaining Yangtze giant softshells, her male partner. They were introduced to each other in 2009, and her arrival at the zoo was greeted with immense fanfare and hope.
“This is literally the last chance we have to save this species,” Paul Calle of the Wildlife Conservation Society told PBS at the time.
But the couple were childless. The male’s damaged penis rendered him unable to breed with her. A brutal fight with another male turtle decades ago had caused the mutilation. The partner lost the use of his penis; the other turtle lost his life.
The female turtle’s fate comes after a long struggle with infertility. Scientists had already tried to artificially inseminate her three times without success, according to the New Yorker.
She died without producing offspring, and with her death comes the likely extinction of the species.