Equilibrium & Sustainability

Galápagos tortoise believed to be extinct confirmed alive

A tortoise from a Galápagos species that scientists had long deemed extinct has now been found to be alive.

The tortoise, named Fernanda, is the first of her species identified in more than a century, according to a group of Princeton and Yale researchers, who published their discovery in Communications Biology on Thursday.

Fernanda is a member of the Fernandina Island Galápagos giant tortoise species, also known as a “fantastic giant tortoise” — a species known only from a single male specimen collected in 1906, the scientists said.

“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,” Peter Grant, a professor of zoology at Princeton, said in a statement.

“It now seems to be one of a very few that were alive a century ago,” he added.

Following the discovery of a female tortoise on Fernandina Island in 2019, a team of scientists began sequencing the genome of both the living tortoise and the 1906 museum specimen, while also comparing them to 13 other Galápagos tortoise species. 

Princeton’s Stephen Gaughran, who at the time was a PhD candidate at Yale, demonstrated that the two known Fernandina tortoises were members of the same species — and genetically distinct from the others, according to the study.

Scientists had initially been dubious about the link, as Fernanda lacks the saddleback flaring of the male historical specimen.

“Like many people, my initial suspicion was that this was not a native tortoise of Fernandina Island,” Gaughran, now a postdoctoral fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, said in a statement.

Gaughran and his colleagues sequenced Fernanda’s complete genome and cross-checked it with the specimen — ultimately discovering “that Fernanda was very similar to the one that they found on that island more than 100 years ago,” he explained.

“The finding of one alive specimen gives hope and also opens up new questions, as many mysteries still remain,” senior author Adalgisa Caccone, Gaughran’s former supervisor at Yale, said in a statement.

Some such questions, she added, might explore whether there are more tortoises on Fernandina that could be brought back into captivity to launch a breeding program or how tortoises colonized the island.

Scientists estimate that Fernanda is more than 50 years old, but she remains small — potentially due to the limited vegetation available to her.

Grant, the Princeton zoology professor, described the island where Fernanda was found as “a huge pile of jagged blocks of brown lava” and on which “vegetation occurs in island-like clumps in a sea of recently congealed lava.”

But the researchers expressed optimism about the species after other recent expeditions to the island revealed tracks and scat of at least two or other three tortoises.

“The discovery informs us about rare species that may persist in isolated places for a long time,” Grant said.

“This information is important for conservation,” he added. “It spurs biologists to search harder for the last few individuals of a population to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”

Tags extinct species Fernandina Island Galápagos giant tortoise Galápagos Islands

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