FunNature & AnimalHow did a species that was thought extinct decades...

How did a species that was thought extinct decades ago reappear?

It was on April 5, 1906 when the Californian ornithologist Rollo Howard Beck, in an expedition of the California Academy of Sciences to the Galapagos Islands , discovered four new species of giant tortoise. Four specimens of different species were collected, all of them new, and John Van Denburg, also a Californian herpetologist, described them a year later in what would be the first scientific article in the recently launched journal Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences .

Among the specimens collected, a male from Fernandina Island stood out, almost 90 cm long. This species, of which only the existence of that male was known —which they found alive and killed in said expedition— , was originally called Testudo phantasticus , today reclassified in the genus Chelonoidis , as C. phantasticus , also known by its vernacular name : Fernandina’s giant tortoise . Since that first sighting, no other specimen had been seen and in 1960 it was considered an extinct species .

Was it extinct or was it partying?

Its status as an extinct species, however, soon began to be questioned. During a new helicopter expedition in 1964 they found turtle feces and chewed cacti on Fernandina Island. The suspicion grew when, in 2009, during an aerial study of the habitat that this species should hypothetically occupy, a possible unconfirmed sighting of a specimen of giant tortoise took place . Four years later, in 2013, the discovery of new feces and footprints ended up convincing the technicians of the IUCN —the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the organization that designates the conservation status of the different species— to consider the circumstantial evidence and change their judgment.

It was no longer considered “extinct” and became a “ critically endangered, possibly extinct ” species.

Unlike most species of giant tortoises in the Galápagos, whose populations were decimated mainly by the exploitation of whalers and buccaneers , there are no records of captures of Fernandina giant tortoises. It is thought that the main threat to this species, which practically led to its extinction, were natural causes, and especially repeated volcanic eruptions.

And it is that its habitat has been reduced due to the extensive recent lava flows, the last one in April 2009 , on an island of 642 km 2 , practically covered by lava flows that are still sterile , and that is the most active at the volcanic level of all the archipelago. The potential habitat of this species is, for all this, quite small; it is almost certainly less than 140 km 2 , and will probably be restricted to only 39 km 2 . A minimal territory made up of xerophilous scrub —that is, adapted to extreme drought— at low altitudes, and better quality vegetation at higher altitudes.

Given the extreme delicacy of their habitat, an intensive search for Fernandina’s giant tortoises was proposed to determine if there really were any left. In addition, the development and implementation of a management plan for the species was recommended, in the case of finding any living specimen.

Fernanda , a centenarian grandmother

In 2019, a group of experts from the international project Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative —from the English Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative or GTRI— , which included specialists from both the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Conservancy organization, carried out a new exploration. In it, and exactly three years ago, on February 19, 2019 , the person who could be responsible for those traces was located. A live and healthy female giant tortoise, over 100 years old, who they named Fernanda . She was quickly transferred by GTRI technicians to the Fausto Lleren breeding center on the island of Santa Cruz, where she has lived ever since.

Recently, it was confirmed by genetic analysis that Fernanda indeed belongs to the same species as that specimen captured in 1906, Chelonoidis phantasticus . We now definitely know that the Fernandina giant tortoise is not, at least not yet, extinct .

What the researchers want now is to prevent a repeat of the Lonesome Geroge disaster , the last male of the species Chelonoidis abingdonii or Pinta giant tortoise. Lonesome George was rescued in 1972, selected for a captive breeding program to try to reproduce it with phylogenetically close species, without success, and died in 2012 .

But for Fernanda there is still hope; According to the testimonies of some Galapagos National Park rangers, feces and footprints continue to be found that can be attributed to at least two more tortoises on the island . New expeditions are already being planned, and it would not be surprising if new specimens were found that could save this species from definitive extinction.

Arteaga, A., & Guayasamin, JM 2020. Fernandina Giant-Tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus). In Reptiles of Ecuador: Life in the middle of the world.
Caccone, A. 2021. Evolution and phylogenetics. In Galapagos Giant Tortoises (pp. 117-138). Elsevier. DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-817554-5.00019-8
Rhodin, AGJ, Gibbs, JP, et al. 2017. Chelonoidis phantasticus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. DOI: 10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-3.RLTS.T170517A1315907.en
Van Denburgh, J. 1907. Preliminary descriptions of four new races of gigantic land tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. Expedition of the California Academy of Sciences to the Galapagos Islands, 1905-1906. Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences, 1, 1-6.

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