Genetic Tests Confirm 100-Year-Old Giant Galápagos Tortoise is Member of “Extinct” Species

May 27, 2021 at 10:51 pm

The giant tortoise found on Fernandina Island last year is in fact a member of a species thought-to-be extinct for 112 years

When scientists found a 100-year-old giant tortoise on Fernandina Island in the Galápagos in late 2019, they dared to hope it was a member of the long-lost species Chelonoidis phantasticus, last seen in 1906!

They were right, genetic testing has just confirmed!

A team of geneticists from Yale University compared genetic samples of the living female tortoise to the remains of a deceased male member of the species and they matched.

The tortoise – named Fern – is the last known living member of the species, which is the only giant tortoise species native to Fernandina Island.

Scientists suspected Fern was a Fernandina tortoise because she was found on Fernandina Island, but weren’t certain because sailors in the 19th and 20th centuries often moved tortoises around.

“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,” said Vice President of Science and Conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy James Gibbs.

Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Conservancy are now “urgently” launching a series of expeditions in hopes of finding a male mate for Fern.

“We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” said the Galápagos National Park director Danny Rueda Córdova.

Lonesome George was the last giant tortoise on the Galápagos Island of Pinta found in 1971. No other members of his species were ever found, and attempts to breed him with other giant tortoise species were unsuccessful.

If any other Fernandina tortoises are found, they will immediately be transported to the breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, where several giant tortoises species from other islands have been  bred back to stable population levels.

A volcanic eruption last year has delayed follow-up expeditions until now, but Galápagos National Park rangers have already reported sighting scat and tracks on the volcanic slopes, which is a good sign!