Giant Tortoise Thought To Be Extinct For 100 Years Rediscovered In Galápagos

The recently rediscovered Fernandina giant tortoise. ©Galapagos National Park Directorate

It was assumed the Fernandina giant tortoise had fallen in extinction long ago, but after decades of obscurity, researchers have spotted an individual wandering around a Galápagos island for the first time in over 110 years.

The adult female was discovered on February 17, during an Animal Planet funded expedition on the island of Fernandina by the Galápagos National Park and Galápagos Conservancy, according to Ecuador's Ministry of the Environment. The last time there was an official sighting of the species was in 1906. Although there was a possible sighting in 2009, researchers were hesitant to jump to any conclusions. Now, the team has also found evidence, namely poop and bite marks on cacti, to suggest that there are other live members of the species on the island as well.  

“The conservation of Galápagos giant tortoises has been my world for 29 years, and I have been involved in many exciting events, including the discovery of a new species of tortoise. But this time, the emotion I feel is indescribable,” Wacho Tapia, Director of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative at the Galápagos Conservancy, said in a statement.

“To find a living tortoise on Fernandina Island is perhaps the most important find of the century. The only live specimen of the species from Fernandina (Chelonoidis phantasticus) was found 112 years ago,” he added.

“Now we just need to confirm the genetic origin of this female. She is old but she is alive!"

The recently rediscovered individual. ©Galapagos National Park Directorate

The Galápagos islands are famous for their giant tortoises. In fact, the word “Galápagos” derives from an old Spanish word for tortoises. However, it’s less well known that there are actually at least 15 species of giant tortoise that inhabit the volcanic archipelago (although there is some debate whether certain populations are separate species or subspecies).

As a general rule, the species that live in the humid highlands have domed shells and short necks, as they have plenty of low-lying vegetation to eat, while but tortoises that live in dry flatlands have “saddleback” shells and a long neck, so they can reach up and eat higher growing plants. 

Of course, the Galápagos Islands are also well known for providing Charles Darwin with the inspiration and knowledge to write his works on evolution by means of natural selection. Found 1,000 kilometers (~620 miles) west of mainland Ecuador in the Pacific Ocean, the islands are home to some of the world’s most varied and unique wildlife, including the blue-footed booby, the lava lizard, and colossal sunfish, to name a few. 

As this news shows, the islands are still ripe for discovery.

Edited 25/02/2019: This article has been edited add that the expedition was funded by Animal Planet.

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