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Giant tortoise thought to be extinct more than a CENTURY is found in the Galapagos Islands

A species of giant tortoise thought to be extinct for more than a century has been discovered alive and well on a tropical island.

The Fernandina Island Galapagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus, or ‘fantastic giant tortoise’) was once known only from a single specimen collected during a scientific expedition in 1906.

This was until a female giant tortoise, named Fernanda, was found wandering Fernandina Island in 2019.

Scientists from Princeton University and the California Academy of Sciences extracted DNA from Fernanda, along with that of the 116-year-old male specimen.

In an article published today in Communications Biologyresearchers reveal that the two are Chelonoidis phantasticus land tortoises, and are genetically distinct from all other Galapagos giant tortoise species.

Fernanda, the only known living giant tortoise from Fernandina Galapagos Island, was found in a clump of vegetation in a sea of ​​recently frozen lava in February 2019.

Fernanda, the only known living giant tortoise from Fernandina Galapagos Island, was found in a clump of vegetation in a sea of ​​recently frozen lava in February 2019.

The Fernandina Island Galapagos giant tortoise was once known only from a single specimen collected during a scientific expedition in 1906, before Fernanda was discovered.

The Fernandina Island Galapagos giant tortoise was once known only from a single specimen collected during a scientific expedition in 1906, before Fernanda was discovered.

Peter Grant, professor of zoology at Princeton University and lead author, said: “For many years the original specimen collected in 1906 was thought to have been transplanted to the island, as it was the only one of its kind.

It now appears to be one of the few that were alive a century ago.

Fernandina Island is an active volcano on the western side of the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited in 1835, inspiring his theory of evolution.

Minor evidence of live Fernandina Island tortoises was found after the 1906 discovery, for example 18 droppings were seen on the western slopes of the island in 1964.

Other droppings and a possible visual sighting from an airplane were reported in the early 2000s, and another possible turtle dropping was seen in 2014.

Fernanda was found in a clump of vegetation in a sea of ​​freshly frozen lava in February 2019.

Scientists estimate it to be more than 50 years old, but it is small, possibly because limited vegetation stunted its growth.

When Fernanda was first discovered, many environmentalists doubted that it was actually a native phantasticus tortoise.

She does not exhibit the unique flaring on the outer edge of her saddleback shell that could be seen in the 1906 specimen collected by explorer Rollo Beck.

Saddling is unique to Galapagos tortoises, and the phantasticus tortoise displays it more prominently than the other species.

Fernanda could also have been transported from another location as, while they cannot swim, turtles can float between islands during a hurricane or storm, or could be carried by seafarers.

Stephen Gaughran, a postdoctoral researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton, said: “Like many people, my initial suspicion was that this was not a tortoise native to Fernandina Island.”

A male specimen of the Fernandina Island giant tortoise was collected in 1906 by explorer Rollo Beck during an expedition, and for years was the only evidence of the species' existence.

A male specimen of the Fernandina Island giant tortoise was collected in 1906 by explorer Rollo Beck during an expedition, and for years was the only evidence of the species’ existence.

Scientists estimate that Fernanda is over 50 years old, but she is small, possibly because the limited vegetation available on the volcanic island of Fernandina stunted her growth.

Scientists estimate that Fernanda is over 50 years old, but she is small, possibly because the limited vegetation available on the volcanic island of Fernandina stunted her growth.

Fernandina Island is an active volcano on the western side of the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited in 1835, inspiring his theory of evolution.

Fernandina Island is an active volcano on the western side of the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited in 1835, inspiring his theory of evolution.

Grant and his team sequenced Fernanda’s genome from a blood sample and compared it to that of the museum specimen and that of the other 13 species of Galapagos giant tortoises to rule them out.

Gaughran added: “We saw, honestly to my surprise, that Fernanda was very similar to the one they found on that island over 100 years ago, and they were both very different from all the tortoises on the other islands.”

Lead author and research scientist Adalgisa Caccone of Yale University said: “The finding of a living specimen gives hope and also opens up new questions, as many mysteries still remain.”

‘Are there more tortoises in Fernandina that can be put back into captivity to start a breeding program?

‘How did the Fernandina tortoises colonize and what is its evolutionary relationship to the other Galapagos giant tortoises?

“This also shows the importance of using museum collections to understand the past.”

While the island has remained largely unexplored due to extensive lava fields blocking access to its interior, more droppings and some tracks of at least two more tortoises have been found during recent expeditions.

Evolutionary biologist Peter Grant says that Fernanda’s genome shows that Chelonoidis phantasticus it is the product of a mixture of different Galapagos species.

He said: ‘The closest relatives are not on the nearest very large island, Isabela, but on another, Española, far away on the other side of Isabela.

‘The question of how the ancestors came to Fernandina remains pending.’

Fernanda is now at the Galapagos National Park Tortoise Center, a rescue and breeding center on Santa Cruz Island, where experts are looking at what they can do to keep their species alive, including trying to find a male mate.

Grant added: “The discovery tells us about rare species that can persist in isolated places for a long time.

‘This information is important for conservation.

“It spurs biologists to search harder for the last individuals in a population to save them from the brink of extinction.”

For now, Fernanda is in a similar position to Lonesome George, who was famous for being the last of the giant tortoises on Isla Pinta Galápagos.

Lonesome George lived out his last decades of life in captivity, but never bred and his species became extinct in 2012 after his death of old age.

HISTORY OF THE GIANT TORTOISES IN THE GALAPAGOS ISLANDS

Two or three million years ago, a storm swept one or more giant tortoises from the South American mainland to the west.

Because they don’t swim, the tortoises bred only with others on their own islands, resulting in rapid evolution.

Today, there are 14 different species of Galapagos giant tortoises, all descended from a single ancestor.

Tortoises from the easternmost islands show rounder, more domed shells, and the westernmost island, Fernandina, shows the most dramatic saddleup.

The saddle back shells are raised and have flared edges, and are combined with long limbs and necks in the turtle.

Dome tortoises live in wetter, higher elevation ecosystems, while their saddleback cousins ​​inhabit drier, lower elevation environments.

All 14 species are listed on the IUCN Red List as vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, or extinct.

This is because the turtle populations were decimated by European seafarers who hunted them for food

They found that they could keep the turtles alive on their boats with minimal effort, as the reptiles could survive on little food or water.

As a result of the long time between turtle generations, populations cannot quickly recover from such depletion.

There are 13 different species of Galapagos giant tortoises in the group of 21 islands

There are 13 different species of Galapagos giant tortoises in the group of 21 islands

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