Giant Tortoise Presumed Extinct for a Century Is Very Much Alive

Fernanda is first fantastic giant tortoise seen in Galapagos since 1906, and only the 2nd ever
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 10, 2022 2:55 PM CDT
Giant Tortoise Presumed Extinct for a Century Is Very Much Alive
Fernandina Island in the Galapagos.   (Getty Images/WMarissen)

A Galapagos giant tortoise species observed only once more than a century ago on a remote volcanic island and thought to have gone extinct as a result of volcanic eruptions has turned up very much alive. A female "fantastic giant tortoise," which the Guardian reports is "significantly genetically different from the other 13 species of tortoise found in the Galapagos," was spotted navigating the active shield volcano that makes up the largely unexplored Fernandina Island in 2019, as National Geographic first reported. Now, genome sequencing has confirmed the female is not just of the same species as the only other Chelonoidis phantasticus specimen known to have existed on Fernandina in 1906, but closely related, per Smithsonian.

"It's a big deal," says Princeton's Stephen Gaughran, co-lead author of a study published Thursday in Communications Biology, per the Guardian. "Everything that we knew about this species said it was extinct." That is, until the appropriately-dubbed Fernanda was spotted roaming through vegetation on solidified lava. Thought to be at least 50 years old, she's smaller than the usual giant tortoise, likely because vegetation is sparse on Fernandina. She also lacks the flared shell and saddleback shape of the previously discovered male fantastic giant tortoise, possibly as a result of stunted growth, researchers say, per Axios.

For years, experts have wondered whether the male tortoise was transplanted to the island. But "it now seems to be one of a very few that were alive a century ago," says Princeton's Peter Grant, per Axios. Recent expeditions uncovered signs of two or three other tortoises, which might be from the same species. "If there are at least a few of these tortoises still living on that island, then that opens up the possibility of trying to really revive the species," Gaughran says, per the Guardian. Though Fernanda has since been moved to the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island, the goal of a September expedition to Fernandina is to find her a mate, Live Science reports. (Read more Galapagos Islands stories.)

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