Galapagos tortoise species returns from "extinction" after 115 years
Scientists have discovered a species of Galapagos tortoise that hasn’t been seen for 115 years, and was presumed extinct. DNA tests have confirmed that a specimen found in 2019 is indeed a long-lost Fernandina Giant tortoise.
The Galapagos Islands are home to many species of giant tortoises, but some are more shy than others. The most elusive was the Fernandina tortoise, which has long been known by only a single specimen collected in 1906. Expeditions to the island have found evidence of the creatures before – in 1964 suspiciously tortoise-like droppings were discovered, and a flyover in 2009 revealed what kinda sorta looked like a tortoise. But all of these remained unconfirmed.
Finally, in 2019 a living, breathing tortoise was discovered on the island. But that alone wasn’t enough to confirm the species – whalers and sailors had been known to ferry the creatures between the Galapagos Islands in the past, so the specimen could have belonged to any of about a dozen species.
To find out for sure, the team conducted a DNA test for the specimen (since named Fernanda or just Fern), comparing her to a sample taken from the original Fernandina tortoise. And sure enough, it was a match.
“Giant tortoises have always been a source of wonder and awe and now, through Fernanda, they are again taking up their mantle as a symbol of hope for our planet’s lost and endangered species and the protection and restoration of biodiversity,” says Don Church, president of Re:wild, one of the conservation organizations supporting the expedition.
Fern was transferred to a breeding center on another island, where it’s hoped that she might be able to continue her line. Meanwhile, scientists are planning further expeditions to Fernandina Island to search for other specimens. And she's not the first Galapagos tortoise to be scrubbed off the extinction list – last year genetic tests revealed that Lonesome George, who died in 2012 and was presumed the last of his species, still has living relatives.
The Fernandina Giant tortoise is now the seventh species to be rediscovered as part of Re:wild’s Search For Lost Species program. The list includes Jackson’s climbing salamander, Wallace’s giant bee, the silver-backed chevrotain, Voeltzkow’s chameleon, the velvet pitcher plant, and the Somali sengi.
The expedition that rediscovered Fern was led by Yale University, included Forrest Galante, and was supported by organizations like Re:wild, Turtle Conservancy, Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and Galapagos Conservancy.