100-Year-Old Galápagos Giant Tortoise Found on Fernandina Island 112 Years After Believed to Have Gone Extinct

The giant tortoise, or Chelonoidis phantasticus, has been named Fern. And now the search is on for a mate for Fern to save her species.

A 100-year-old female giant tortoise has been found on Fernandina Island in the Galápagos that was thought for more than 112 years to have gone extinct.

Scientists at Yale University confirmed the finding that was based on genetic testing that determined the tortoises' exact species. The discovery of the Galápagos tortoise was made in 2019. 

Prior to the 2019 discovery, only one specimen of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise had ever been found. It was a male that has been discovered during an expedition between 1905 and 1906 by the California Academy of Sciences expedition, according to the Galapagos Conservancy.

In the 19th century, populations of Giant Tortoises were destroyed throughout the Galapagos archipelago due to exploitation by whalers and buccaneers, and the Fernandina Giant Tortoise species was believed to be extinct due to volcanic eruptions in past centuries, cited researchers from the Galapagos Conservancy.

The current population of Giant Tortoises throughout the islands is only 10-15% of its historical numbers that is estimated between 200,000-300,000 individuals, the conservancy reported.

Now, the Galápagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and Galápagos Conservancy plan to launch expeditions to find a mate for the female Chelonoidis phantasticus, which they have nicknamed Fernanda, and save the species, the Good News Network (GNN) reported.

Dr. James Gibbs, Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy and a tortoise expert at the State University of New York, was elated when Fern was found.

"One of the greatest mysteries in Galápagos has been the Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise," Gibbs said. "Rediscovering this lost species may have occurred just in the nick of time to save it."

He continued. "We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises."

An active volcano and a hard volcanic landscape have made long-term exploration to locate more tortoise species challenging, a report said. 

A January 2020 eruption on the island delayed researchers' first-planned expedition in the aftermath of Fern's discovery. Now research teams hope to return to the site in September in search of more giant tortoises.

Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park, hopes to start a breeding program in captivity to recover more of these giant tortoise species, the GNN said. 

In the meantime, the Galápagos Conservancy has set up the "Emergency Action Fund to save the Fernandina Giant Tortoise."  Three separate expeditions will be planned to the island. Tortoise veterinarians in helicopters will scout from the air, and transport any tortoises they find back to the breeding center.

"We are asking for your urgent support in helping us fund a series of expeditions with GNPD, beginning in September, to return to Fernandina to search for additional tortoises in the hopes of finding a mate for Fern and saving the species," Gibbs said. 

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