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Giant Tortoise Is the First of Her Species Identified in Over 100 Years

The "fantastic giant tortoise" of the Galapagos was thought likely to be extinct, until now.

A large tortoise stands near rocks and shrubs.
Fernanda is a Galapagos giant tortoise of a species thought to be extinct.
Galapagos Conservancy

A study published in the journal Communications Biology this week gets right to the point with its title: "The Galapagos giant tortoise Chelonoidis phantasticus is not extinct." It's quite a statement about a species whose last known member was documented in 1906. 

The existence of Fernanda, a giant tortoise from Fernandina Island in the Galapagos, is a rare piece of goods news in a world where animal extinctions are accelerating. "We saw -- honestly, to my surprise -- that Fernanda was very similar to the one that they found on that island more than 100 years ago, and both of those were very different from all of the other islands' tortoises," said study co-author Stephen Gaughran in a Princeton University statement on Thursday.

Chelonoidis phantasticus ("fantastic giant tortoise") has been classified as "critically endangered, possibly extinct" on the IUCN Red List, a catalog of threatened species. The species wasn't listed as extinct due to evidence, including sightings of scat, that tortoises still lived on Fernandina, a volcanically active island largely covered in lava flows.

Fernanda was discovered in 2019 and, at first, researchers thought she might not be native to the island. It took extensive genetic analysis to determine that she was indeed part of the same species as the 1906 male specimen that had been the only known fantastic giant tortoise. Gaughran compared Fernanda to 13 other known species of Galapagos tortoises.   

The only other known member of the fantastic giant tortoise species is this specimen of a male collected in 1906.

California Academy of Sciences

The newly rediscovered tortoise is over 50 years old but is small and likely stunted from a lack of vegetation in her habitat. The researchers discovered scat and footprints from other tortoises on the island, suggesting there may be more of the ultra-rare reptiles out there. 

All of the Galapagos turtle species are threatened, ranging from vulnerable to extinct on the IUCN Red List due to loss of habitat, pressure from invasive species and being harvested for meat by European explorers.

Figuring out Fernanda's identity is just the start of a deeper investigation. If there are others of her kind, it might be feasible to begin a breeding program. A giant tortoise named Diego (of the species Chelonoidis hoodensis) famously fathered at least 800 children during his time in a breeding program.

As research continues, Fernanda is now in a new home at the Galapagos National Park Tortoise Center, a facility that rescues and breeds the animals. Fernanda could be the first glimmer of new hope for a mysterious species thought lost to time.