Galápagos Tortoise Feared Extinct for 112 Years Needs a Mate to Help Save Species

Scientists have found a living relative of a species of tortoise long thought to have been extinct.

It has raised hopes the species could be revived if researchers can find a mate for the animal—a female Giant Tortoise discovered on Fernandina Island in Ecuador, which is part of the Galápagos Islands.

The tortoise, named Fern, was discovered in 2019 by researchers at the Galápagos National Park Directoriate (GNPD) and Galápagos Conservancy.

At that time, they had assumed Fern was related to the Fernandina Giant Tortoise species—the last example of which was recorded 112 years ago. But they needed evidence.

They took a blood sample from the animal and sent it to a team of geneticists at Yale University, who have confirmed that Fern is indeed related to the Fernandina Giant Tortoise, also known as Chelonoidis phantasticus. The species is native to the island.

While giant tortoise populations in general were severely impacted by hunting in the 19th century, Chelonoidis phantasticus is thought to have been almost wiped out by eruptions from the active volcano located on the island.

Now though, teams at the GNPD and Galápagos Conservancy are urgently planning a series of major expeditions to return to Fernandina Island to search for more members of the species.

There are signs that more are there. Park rangers have found tracks and feces left behind by at least two other tortoises on the Fernandina Volcano during the searches that uncovered Fern.

James Gibbs, vice president of science and conservation for the Galápagos Conservancy at the State University of New York, said in a statement: "Rediscovering this lost species may have occurred just in the nick of time to save it. We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises."

If a male is found, researchers plan to place the two together in the hopes they could breed. Any young tortoises would then be reared in captivity before being returned to the island.

The situation recalls that of Lonesome George, a male giant tortoise who died in 2012 as the last known member of the species Chelonoidis abingdoni, also known as the Pinta tortoise. The species was hunted to dwindling numbers in the 1800s.

After Lonesome George was discovered in 1971 by Hungarian scientist József Vágvölgyi, researchers conducted extensive searches to find a female member of the species. None were found.

Regarding Fern, Danny Rueda Córdova, director of the Galápagos National Park Directorate, said in a statement: "We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George."

He added the series of expeditions to Fernandina Island to search for more tortoises would begin in September 2021.

Fern tortoise
A photo of Fern, relative of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise, from 2019. Scientists hope to find more relatives of the species. Galapagos National Park Directorate / Galapagos Conservancy