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Giant tortoise found alive in Galápagos confirmed from species thought extinct over 100 years ago

The female tortoise nicknamed "Fern" was found in 2019. Geneticists at Yale University have confirmed that she is indeed related to the Chelonoidis phantasticus tortoise species native to the island.

Giant tortoise found alive in Galápagos confirmed from species thought extinct over 100 years ago
Image Source: Galapagos Conservancy press release

In 2019, a single giant tortoise was found on the Galápagos Islands during an expedition. The tortoise was already 100-years-old and was thought to be the same species as that of the tortoise thought to be extinct for 112 years. Scientists have now conducted tests on the female tortoise nicknamed "Fern", and have confirmed the genetic similarity between her and the presumed extinct Fernandina Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus). Fern has restored hope that her species can be brought back from the brink of extinction once they find a suitable mate for her. A new expedition has now been launched to look for more tortoise on the Galápagos Islands.


The initial expedition was carried out by a nonprofit, Galápagos Conservancy's Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI,) rangers from the Galápagos National Park, and Forrest Galante, a host and biologist with Animal Planet, which funded the expedition. "For me, it was the most important achievement of my life because I have been working on tortoise conservation for 30 years,"  the director of GTRI and leader of the expedition, Washington Tapia told National Geographic when his team first spotted the tortoise. "This was basically my Oscar." Fern is much rarer than an Oscar since the last time a member of her species was spotted was in 1906.


To confirm that Fern was indeed the same species, her blood samples were sent to geneticists at Yale University. A team led by Dr. Gisella Caccone ran a comparative analysis with the remains of a male from the same species that was recovered. They were able to confirm that she is indeed related to the Chelonoidis phantasticus tortoise species native to the island. The prayers of the researchers at Galápagos Conservancy and GNPD had been answered. Ecuador, of which the Galápagos islands are a part, is celebrating this as good news, reported BBC, as the Environment Minister Gustavo Manrique tweeted, "It was believed to have gone extinct more than 100 years ago!"



Dr. James Gibbs, Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy and tortoise expert at the State University of New York said in a statement, “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 population of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise decimated drastically in the 19th century owing to indiscriminate whaling activities in the region.


There are a total of 15 identified species of Galápagos tortoises. Out of these, two have gone extinct officially while one more is extinct but not officially recognized. The remaining 12 are threatened with extinction. The historical population of the tortoises throughout the Archipelago was between 200,000-300,000 tortoises. Presently, there is only 10-15 percent of the tortoises left. “We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” Danny Rueda Córdova, Director of the Galápagos National Park Directorate said. “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 known giant tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galápagos who died at the age of 100. He belonged to the Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni subspecies, which was also thought to be extinct before George was discovered in 1971 by a snail biologist. George was transferred to the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galápagos where he lived with two potential mates but was unable to produce healthy offspring, according to the Smithsonian Magazine. Conservationists hope Fern and the species she is carrying on her back do not meet the same fate as George. If a male is soon discovered, the two remaining members of the species will be reunited and the experts at the Galápagos National Park’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Center in Santa Cruz will overlook their breeding efforts.


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