Nature

Giant tortoise considered extinct for over 100 years makes a comeback

There are thought to be only around 45,000 head of giant tortoises left in the Galápagos, but this one, affectionately named Fernanda, thought to be the last of the species, or if not one of a very few, is particularly special.

Researchers discovered the solitary female tortoise during a joint expedition carried out by the Galápagos National Park Directorate in 2019.

The Fernandina Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus) is native only to the volcanic island, Fernandina, named after King Ferdinand of Spain. Researchers previously considered that the Fernandina Giant Tortoise was wiped out in the Fernandina Volcano eruptions, with no sightings being reported for 113 years.

Galapagos giant tortoise
The Galapagos giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos National Park, Ecuador. The largest living species of tortoise.

Fernandina is a volcanic island in the Galápagos islands, approximately 1,000km west of mainland Ecuador. The island’s active volcano had 30 recorded eruptions since the early 1800s, with the most recent of 11th April 2009.

In a race to avoid extinction, researchers have launched an expedition to find a mate.

Danny Rueda Córdova of the Galapagos National Park Directorate said “We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” said Danny Rueda Córdova, Director of the Galapagos National Park Directorate. “My team from the Park and Galápagos Conservancy are planning a series of major expeditions to return to Fernandina Island to search for additional tortoises beginning this September.”

Lonesome George was the last remaining Pinta Giant Tortoise who died in 2012.

“Yale University revealed the results of genetic studies and the respective DNA comparison that was made with a specimen extracted in 1906”

If a male tortoise is found, he will be paired up with the lone female at the Galapagos National Park’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Center in Santa Cruz, with scientists overseeing a breeding program, ensuring that offspring are safely reared in captivity before releasing them back to Fernandina to conserve the species.

Dr James P. Gibbs, Professor of Vertebrate Conservation Biolog of Yale University in New York said that “one of the greatest mysteries in Galápagos has been the Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise. 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,”

The mission to save the species has real prospects, with Park rangers recently reporting DNA matched tracks and droppings of other tortoises near the Fernandina Volcano near to where the lone female was found.

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