A Giant Tortoise Thought Extinct For More Than 100 Years Was Found in the Galápagos


Jun 1, 2021


Image credit: Rory Stansbury, Island Conservation/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Researchers discovered a species of a giant tortoise believed to have gone extinct over a century ago in the Galápagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. The Fernandina Giant Tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus) was last seen 112 years ago on an island with the same name, the Fernandina Island in the Galapagos.

“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,” James Gibbs, Ph.D., Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galapagos Conservancy and tortoise expert at the State University of New York, said in a statement.

Researchers found the female tortoise, named ‘Fernanda’ in 2019, and were confident it was the lost Fernandina Giant Tortoise, but they sent a blood sample to genetic scientists at Yale University to verify the same. The scientists looked into how closely Fernanda the tortoise’s genetics matched those of the extinct Fernandina Giant Tortoise (a male) found on the islands in 1906.

The population of the Giant Tortoise species plummeted in the 19th century Galápagos due to excessive whaling, entanglement in fishing gear, and other high-risk activities. Whaling was a unique threat — Charles Townsend, the director of the New York Aquarium in the 1920s found that many whaling ships stopped on the Galápagos Islands because the sailors took a fancy to tortoise meat. Between 1831-1868, Townsend estimated that 79 whaling vessels had made 189 visits to the islands, utilizing more than 13,000 tortoises as meat. Expeditions to save the Galapagos tortoise started only after this discovery.

As of now, there are only 200,000-300,000 Giant Tortoises on the islands — which is around 0-15% of its previous numbers.

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The Fernandina Giant Tortoise, in specific, was believed extinct due to several volcanic eruptions in the past centuries. Now that the scientists have confirmed her species, the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and Galápagos Conservancy are launching an urgent expedition to the Fernandina Island to find a male mate that can help save and preserve the species. This expedition is expected to be challenging as the island has an active volcano, which can make travel challenging.

Park rangers in the island found tracks and scat belonging to tortoises near the Fernandina Volcano while finding Fernanda the tortoise, raising hope of finding two new members of the same species. “We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises,” Dr. James Gibbs notes.

Scientists are currently raising funds to start the expedition, and hope they can find a male member of the species before Fernanda passes away in order to save the species. The scientists intend to help breed the tortoises, raise their children in captivity for a while, and then release them into the wild.


Written By Aditi Murti

Aditi Murti is a culture writer at The Swaddle. Previously, she worked as a freelance journalist focused on gender and cities. Find her on social media @aditimurti.


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