Extinct Galápagos Tortoise Species Rediscovered Alive

A Giant Tortoise found on the Galápagos Islands is from a species thought to be extinct by scientists.

New genetic research has confirmed that the found tortoise is from the Fernandina Giant Tortoise species (also known as chelonoidis phantasticus), a species thought to have died out 112 years ago. 

The lone female Fernandina Giant Tortoise was found by a Galápagos expedition to Fernandina Island back in 2019. The expedition was undertaken by the Galápagos National Park Directorate and the Galápagos Conservancy. 

It was not immediately apparent that the tortoise was from the extinct species. 

A blood sample was taken and sent to Yale University to determine the tortoise’s genetic origin. The blood sample matched closely with another sample from the only other Giant Tortoise found on Fernandina Island: a large now-deceased male tortoise found in 1906.

“One of the greatest mysteries in Galápagos has been the Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise,” said Dr. James Gibbs, Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy. “Rediscovering this lost species may have occurred just in the nick of time to save it. We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises.”

That search will take place in September 2021. The Galápagos National Park team and the Galápagos Conservancy are planning to return to Fernandina Island at the end of summer, to search for other Giant Tortoises.

They hope to find a mate for the lone female tortoise, which is also known as Fernanda. The female tortoise is estimated to be 100 years old. However, as a tortoise can live up to 200 years, there is still time to save the species. 

The search will be quite a difficult expedition as Fernandina Island’s landscape is dominated by an active volcano. Volcanic eruptions were also thought to be the reason behind the species’ supposed extinction in the first place, so it might be tricky to find other tortoises. 

There is hope, however. Park rangers have already found signs, including tracks and droppings, of other Giant Tortoises on the island. 

The last time a similar expedition to save a tortoise species was undertaken was back in 2012. Scientists then tried to find a mate for a male Pinta Island Tortoise known as “Lonesome George”. The expedition was not successful. 

“We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” said Danny Rueda Córdova, Director of the Galápagos National Park Directorate, of the upcoming expedition. George died in 2012 as the last-known of his species and without leaving any offspring. 

The reason why there is such a need to save the tortoise species is to maintain the health and balance of the surrounding ecosystem. The loss of one species might trigger the loss of other species around, as well as the collapse of the ecosystem and the disappearance of natural resources such as clean water and fertile land. The expedition for a mate for Fernanda is thus no unnecessary luxury.