In 2019, a team of four rangers from the Galápagos National Park made a remarkable discovery. During an expedition on Fernandina Island, the team found a lone female giant tortoise belonging to a species that was thought to be extinct, reported Jill Langlois for National Geographic in February 2019. Now, geneticists have confirmed that the female tortoise is a Fernandina giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus), a species last seen in 1906, reports Asha C. Gilbert for USA Today.
In the 19th century, tortoise populations were decimated by whalers and buccaneers. However, the Fernandina giant tortoise was thought to have gone extinct from volcanic eruptions on the island. Currently, on the Galápagos Islands, the giant tortoise population is only 10 to 15 percent of its historical numbers that once reached between 200,000 to 300,000 individuals, according to a Galápagos Conservancy statement.
Soon after the discovery, the tortoise—dubbed "Fernanda"— was taken to the Galápagos National Park's Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island, where the researchers could keep an eye on her and supply her with food. If Fernanda were left on her native island, trying to find her again on the volcanic terrain of Fernandina would have been difficult and time-consuming for the researchers, per National Geographic. When Fernanda was found, park rangers were confident that she belonged to the lost giant tortoise species. Still, the researchers collected blood samples and sent them to geneticists and tortoise experts at Yale University to confirm, reports Yasemin Saplakoglu for Live Science.
The team of scientists at Yale used Fernanda's blood samples to compare her genes to the remains of a male Chelonoidis phantasticus tortoise found on the island in 1906, reports BBC News. The researchers found the tortoises were closely related and Fernanda belonged to the same species, Live Science reports.
"One of the greatest mysteries in Galapagos 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," said James Gibbs, Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy and tortoise expert at the State University of New York, in a statement.
Researchers are now planning an expedition in September to find Fernanda a male mate, in hopes that her species can be saved to avoid the same fate as Lonesome George, a Pinta Island Tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) declared extinct in 2012 after unsuccessful breeding efforts, reports Live Science.
While searching for Fernanda, the team found traces of tracks and scat of at least two other tortoises on Fernandina Island. If a male giant tortoise is found, the team will take him to the breeding center in Santa Cruz and encourage him to mate with Fernanda. If breeding is successful, scientists will keep the young tortoises in captivity until they can be released back to their native habitats on Fernandina Island, Live Science reports.
Fernanda is thought to be roughly 100 years old. As one of the longest-living animals, tortoises can live to be 200 years old—so, the female tortoise has time to help her species recover, National Geographic reports.