The Galápagos Islands are well known for their giant tortoises, penguins, fur seals, sea lions, marine iguanas, and tons of other animals, as well as the fact that they receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. While the island was seemingly hidden away for centuries, since it’s discovery, it hasn’t stopped surprising those that have the privilege of visiting them.
Just recently, the islands have made yet another amazing discovery after a 112-year old female giant tortoise was found on one of its many islands, the Fernandina Island to be exact. After doing some genetic testing, the scientists have found that the tortoise is indeed a member of a species they believed had gone extinct over a century ago.
The Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate had thought that the species had been lost some 112 years ago. But now that they know of her existence, they are frantically looking for a male mate for her in order to preserve their species, which is the Chelonoidis phantasticus.
The tortoise, who was lovingly named “Fern” after her discovery in 2019, led Yale University to take quick action into her genetics in order to b figure out her exact species. While the research team had a deep inkling that she was indeed from the Fernandina species they had otherwise perceived to be extinct, they also initiated a number of other expeditions across the islands to search for more possible members of her family.
Not too long into their excursions, the park rangers shared that they saw scat and track sightings on the volcanic slopes, which translates to the possibility of more turtles in the area. If they do find any more of this species, they will be transported immediately to Santa Cruz Island where the breeding center is located. Here, a variety of giant tortoises species have been bred back successfully to what is considered ‘stable population levels.’
Vice President of Science and Conversation for the Galápagos Conservancy, as well as tortoise expert at the State University of New York, Dr. James Gibbs, said, “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.”
Meanwhile, Director of the Galápagos National Park Directorate, Danny Rueda Córdova, shared in a press release, “We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George. 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.”
The reason why the search will still take place in September is because the Fernandina island has an active volcano on the island. Because of its volcanic landscape, it makes long-term exploration very hard for those doing the searching. In fact, just in January of 2020, there was yet another eruption that caused a delay in the first expedition of the island that had been planned after Fern was found.
While waiting to embark on the new excursions, the Galápagos Conservancy has put up a fundraiser on their website in order to fund three different expeditions on the islands. Each one will use a helicopter to scout the area from above, as well as have tortoise veterinarians aboard. Should they find any tortoises, they will be transported back directly to the breeding center as soon as possible.
Johannah Barry, who happened to be the former president of the Galápagos Conservancy shared how last year, they had already assumed that the old tortoise was really a Fernandina precisely because they found her there. But scientists needed to make sure since sailors were known to move around the tortoises back in the 19th and 20th centuries.
She shared, “I can understand why people are excited. It’s either going to be ‘wow, it’s a Fernandina tortoise,’ or ‘wow, it’s not.” But after confirmation, the world now knows that she is, indeed, a Fernandina, and in all honestly, the entire discovery is truly mind-blowing.
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