Mysterious Volcano-Dwelling Tortoise Rediscovered After 100+ Years!

Aug 29, 2022by Olivia - F&F

On Fernandina Island in the Western Galápagos, a mysterious species of tortoise has eluded scientists for more than a century — until now!

Rediscovered Fernandina Giant TortoiseRediscovered Fernandina Giant Tortoise

Image: Galápagos Conservancy

Fernandina Giant Tortoise Rediscovered After More Than A Century

Imagine staying hidden for more than a century on an active volcano isle? Fernandina Island is said to be the largest pristine island on Earth, and home to a mysterious species of tortoise called the Fernandina Giant Tortoise. 

Known also as the “fantastic giant tortoise”, the species was believed to be extinct for more than a century due to a series of volcanic eruptions. The first specimen of the tortoise was collected by the explorer Rollo Beck during an expedition in 1906, and hadn’t been spotted since then!

That was until Galápagos national park rangers found evidence of the species’ existence in 2017: a pile of dung! Two years later, the park rangers discovered a Fernandina Giant Tortoise. The female tortoise — nicknamed Fernanda — was around 50 years old, despite her small stature.

Fernandina Female Giant TortoiseFernandina Female Giant Tortoise

Image: Turtle Conservancy

Female Tortoise Confirmed To Be A Fernandina Giant Tortoise!

While the discovery was incredibly exciting, the researchers couldn’t confirm whether this single tortoise was, indeed, a Fernandina Giant Tortoise. After all, she was much smaller than the male tortoise spotted in 1906!  

“For many years, it was thought that the original specimen collected in 1906 had been transplanted to the island, as it was the only one of its kind,” said ecology and evolutionary biologist, Professor Peter Grant.

Plus, according to Dr. Stephen Gaughran — a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University — “my initial suspicion was that Fernanda was not a native tortoise of Fernandina Island”. To confirm the species of the tortoise, Dr. Gaughran and his colleagues compared her genome to the male genome recovered in 1906. To their surprise, it was a complete match!

Fernandina Giant Tortoise ConservationFernandina Giant Tortoise Conservation

Image: Turtle Conservancy

Is Fernanda The Only Fernandina Giant Tortoise Left In The Wild?

Thanks to genome sequencing, the Princeton University researchers confirmed the existence of her species! “We simultaneously were able to show the connection between Fernanda and the other Fernandina tortoise, and also the distinctiveness of those two tortoises from species that we see on other islands," Dr. Stephen Gaughran. 

"I was surprised, and then once it sank in, I was really excited about it," he said. So, is there hope for the Fernandina Giant Tortoise species? According to the researchers, Fernanda could live to around 200 years old! This means that there could be many others of her kind living on Fernandina Island. 

Currently, Fernanda is living in captivity in the Galápagos National Park Tortoise Center. If other Fernandina Giant Tortoises are found, a breeding program could commence!

What an amazing discovery! Lately, it seems like the only headlines we see relate to species decline and species reaching extinction. So, it’s fantastic to see that there is hope for the survival of this beautiful giant tortoise species! 

For more news around the globe relating to animal conservation efforts, check out our Eco News category and the blogs below.

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