More great news for the Galapagos! A species of giant tortoise, believed to have been extinct for the past 113 years, has been found on the island of Fernandina. This historic discovery comes a month after land iguanas were reintroduced to Santiago Island for the first time in 184 years. The last known sighting of a Fernandina giant tortoise, Chelonoidis phantasticus, was in 1906.
On February 17, 2019, an adult female, estimated to be more than 100 years old, was found by rangers from Galapagos National Park and scientists from the Galápagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative. Ranger Jeffreys Malaga was the first to spot the tortoise, blended into a patch of vegetation amidst the lava rocks. Conservationists transported the rare reptile to the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island. Observations of tracks, scat and bite marks on cacti lead the team to believe more Fernandina giant tortoises exist on the island, and another expedition is planned for later this year. “This encourages us to strengthen our search plans to find other (tortoises), which will allow us to start a breeding program in captivity to recover this species,” said Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park.
The Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are famous for their array of unique, endemic species—the wildlife found here helped inspire Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. One of these iconic animals, the giant tortoise, has an important ecological role on the islands as a seed disperser. However, these gentle giants are at risk of becoming extinct. The population of giant tortoises decreased drastically over the last two centuries when they were slaughtered for their meat and oil by colonists who traveled to the archipelago. Now, invasive species pose a threat, such as rats who feed upon tortoise eggs and goats who compete for vegetation like the prickly pear cactus. For the Fernandina giant tortoise, it is the rugged environment it inhabits that leaves it particularly vulnerable. Fernandina is the youngest and most volcanically active of the Galapagos Islands. The 230 square mile island is subject to frequent eruptions from the La Cumbre Volcano, and it is speculated that most of the Fernandina giant tortoises may have succumbed to the lava flows that nearly cover the island.
There are 14 giant tortoise species native to the Galapagos. Their statuses range from critically endangered to vulnerable, and two, the Floreana and Pinta Island giant tortoise, have gone extinct. Lonesome George, a worldwide symbol of conservation, was the last member of the Pinta Island subspecies, until his passing in 2012. Following in his footsteps, the female Fernandina giant tortoise resurrects the hope of saving a species long thought to be gone forever. ‘ Much like Lonesome George was an icon of extinction, I believe she can become an icon of wildlife hope,” said biologist Forrest Galante. “She’s the rarest tortoise, if not animal, in the entire world and one of the largest discoveries in the Galapagos in the last century.”