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The Giant Tortoise of The Galapagos: Once Thought to Be Extinct, Found Alive!

Updated: Dec 21, 2023


The charming Giant female tortoise of Galapagos Island, Fernanda
The charming Giant female tortoise of Galapagos Island, Fernanda. Photo Credit: cnn.com

This is like a wonderful heart-warming fairy tale. Yet, it is a story in the real world and not some imaginary fantasy!


A giant female tortoise was found on the famed Galapagos Islands. One may wonder why this is such big news given that the Galapagos are known for huge tortoises anyway. The reason is that this is not just another giant tortoise like the ones found on the islands in this biome. This special species of giant tortoise was thought to be extinct for over a century!


In 1906, a giant male tortoise was found on the island known as the Fernandina Island in the Galapagos archipelago. After its demise it was thought that this species had gone extinct. However, there were sporadic reports that that may not have been the case.


In 2019, a lone female giant tortoise was discovered on the island! The conservationists named this giant female tortoise Fernanda. Scientists at the Yale University in the USA confirmed genetic similarity between Fernanda and the male tortoise found on that island more than 112 years ago. Both these tortoises were very different from all the other tortoises found on the Galapagos! They were a unique species!


Fernandina Island is dominated by an active volcano that makes keeping track of the tortoises very difficult. Yet, scientists are doing a great job in saving the tortoises.

The species thought to be extinct for 112 years finally has a proven, living member!

What is Fernanda up to now? She lives at the Fausto Llerena Giant Tortoise Breeding Center, which serves as a rescue and breeding facility. If more tortoises such as Fernanda are found, conservationists could begin a captive breeding program to keep her species alive!



Map of the Galapagos Islands archipelago, where the Giant tortoises were found in Fernandina Island in 1906 and 1919.
Map of the Galapagos Islands archipelago, where the Giant tortoises were found in Fernandina Island in 1906 and 1919. Photo Credit: nature.com


Five Facts about Galapagos Giant Tortoises

1. Unlike turtles, tortoises cannot swim, so scientists were baffled as to how they reached this island. Then they found out that since they can float, hurricanes and storms must have transported them to the Galapagos from other populated lands. Two or three million years ago, raging oceanic storms must have carried few giant tortoises from the South American mainland westwards. Once on these islands, the tortoises bred only with others of their own kind. A whole range of morphological variations ensued.


2. Today, there are 14 different species of giant Galápagos tortoises, all descended from a single ancestor. Scientists have found that they all have distinct genes and are therefore classified as separate species. Ancient sailors hunted them extensively because of their meat. They also used their carapace as bowls and took them on their journeys because tortoise do not need lot of water to survive. For this reason, their numbers dwindled.


3. The Galápagos tortoises exhibit diversified shell shapes. The Eastern islands species show rounder, domed shells, while the Western island species like Fernanda, exhibit what is termed “saddleback” domes. This type of carapace has an upward curve in the front, which allows them to stretch up to reach higher growing plants. They tend to live on arid islands in Galapagos, where food is less abundant.


Morphological difference between domed (left) and saddleback (right) carapace in Galapagos giant tortoises
Morphological difference between domed (left) and saddleback (right) carapace in Galapagos giant tortoises. Photo Credit: nature.com /Y. Chiari

4. The Galapagos giant tortoise spends an average of 16 hours per day resting. The domed tortoises live in more humid, higher elevation ecosystems, while their saddle backed cousins inhabit drier, lower elevation environments. All 14 species are listed on the IUCN Red List as either vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, or extinct.


5. The Galapagos Conservancy is an organization responsible for the welfare of the Galapagos Endangered Tortoises. To do your part in helping these incredible, critically endangered species, please check out their website galapagos.org.



Fernanda, the Giant female tortoise of Galapagos Island
Fernanda, the Giant female tortoise of Galapagos Island. Photo Credit: smithsonianmag.com


Did You Know?

· The renowned British naturalist, biologist and geologist Charles Darwin saw several different types of finch, and different species on each of the Galapagos island. He noticed that each finch species had a different type of beak, depending on the food available on its island. The finches that ate large nuts had strong beaks for breaking the nuts open.

· ICUN stands for International Union for Conservation of Nature. Its Headquarters is in Switzerland. IUCN is at the forefront of the global fight to save all species from extinction. It works to develop best practices and approaches that enable effective conservation of species.


 

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