Not quite extinct
A rare giant tortoise makes an appearance after more than a century
After disappearing for more than a century, the Fernandina giant tortoise is back on the radar. A research team had a surprise encounter with a large female tortoise on Fernandina Island in 2019. Now, scientists from Yale University last week announced that genetic testing confirmed the large female is a member of the presumed-extinct Fernandina giant tortoise species. While the discovery revives hope for the future of the Chelonoidis phantasticus, scientists must now find a breeding partner for the animal, named Fernanda, to safeguard the species’ survival.
Sitting more than 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos Islands are home to more than 9,000 species of animals, according the World Wildlife Fund. Many of them are found nowhere else on Earth, and some live only on particular islands. Fernanda’s species was only known to live on Fernandina Island, the third largest island in the archipelago. But no one had seen one since an expedition team from the California Academy of Sciences encountered a male tortoise in 1905 and 1906. Because of nearly continuous volcanic activity on the Galapagos’ newest and westernmost islands, scientists presumed for decades that the rare tortoise had become extinct.
Scientists began to rethink their assumption in 2015 when a park ranger discovered what many believed to be tortoise scat on the island. This news prompted cable network Animal Planet to organize an expedition in partnership with Wacho Tapia, the director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. According to Tapia, Galapagos National Park ranger Jeffreys Málaga found Fernanda during filming in 2019. “The emotional high I experienced as a participant in perhaps the most important find of the century—a live tortoise on Fernandina Island—is indescribable,” Tapia wrote.
After navigating two years of government red tape, Yale University researchers have compared Fernandina’s DNA to that from the remains of the male tortoise researchers found in the early 1900s. The results confirmed their hopes: The Fernandina giant tortoise lives on.
Fernanda has been resettled to a breeding center elsewhere in the archipelago. Park officials have since found more scat on the island, kindling hope that researchers could locate another living tortoise soon. According to Galapagos National Park Director Danny Rueda, the race is on to return to the island and find other living specimens and perhaps even complete a pair to begin breeding.
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