Unexpected Discovery on a Remote Island After 113 Years

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A rare giant Galapagos tortoise species, Chelonoidis phantasticus, believed to be extinct, has been rediscovered on the remote Fernandina Island.

This surprising find adds a second known member to the species, which had only one recorded sighting over a century ago.

The First Rediscovery in Over a Century

In 1906, a lone male tortoise was found wandering around Fernandina Island.

After this initial discovery, no other sightings of the species were recorded, leading scientists to believe it had gone extinct.

That changed in 2019, when researchers from the Galapagos Conservancy stumbled upon a 50-year-old female tortoise, nicknamed Fernanda.

She appears to have made the harsh volcanic landscape of Fernandina Island her home.

Uncovering Differences and Raising Questions

The discovery of Fernanda has doubled the known population of this elusive species.

However, it has also presented a puzzle for scientists.

Despite their genomes being very similar, Fernanda looks quite different from the male found in 1906.

Her shell is smaller and smoother, contrasting with the male’s more pronounced, saddleback-like carapace.

These physical differences have raised questions about the evolutionary history and genetic diversity of the species.

Scientific Significance and Future Questions

The findings, published in the journal Communications Biology, bring new hope and raise important questions about the survival of C. phantasticus.

Senior author Adalgisa Caccone from Yale’s Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology highlights the significance of this discovery.

She wonders if there might be more tortoises on Fernandina Island that could be brought into captivity to start a breeding program, aiming to preserve the species.

Survival in a Harsh Environment

Fernandina Island’s harsh volcanic environment, which has seen around 25 eruptions in the past 200 years, seemed like an inhospitable home for a slow-moving species like C. phantasticus.

Despite these challenges, Fernanda has managed to survive for half a century.

The island’s young geological age and frequent volcanic activity create isolated patches of habitat, making it difficult for tortoises to move from one area to another.

This isolation might have contributed to the species’ survival in small, secluded pockets of vegetation.

Possible Hybrid and Genetic Mysteries

Researchers also noted slight differences in Fernanda’s mitochondrial DNA, which is inherited from the mother.

This suggests she might be a hybrid between C. phantasticus and another now-extinct species, C. nigra.

This hybridization could explain her distinct appearance and smaller size, possibly due to stunted growth from limited food resources on the island.

The discovery of these genetic differences opens up new avenues for understanding the evolutionary history of Galapagos tortoises.

Conservation Efforts and Future Challenges

Despite the tough conditions on Fernandina Island, evidence such as tortoise scat suggests there could be more Galapagos giants to be found.

The Galapagos National Park and Galapagos Conservancy plan to conduct further expeditions to search for additional tortoises.

Finding more individuals could help establish a breeding program to preserve the species.

The Path Forward

However, Adalgisa Caccone cautions that finding more tortoises is just the beginning.

Even if a breeding program is initiated, a new suitable habitat will be needed for their long-term survival.

The harsh conditions of Fernandina Island are not ideal for supporting a growing tortoise population.

Fernanda’s rediscovery offers a glimmer of hope for the survival of Chelonoidis phantasticus.

It presents an opportunity to learn more about this mysterious species and their resilience in the face of extreme environmental challenges.

The continued efforts of conservationists and researchers will be crucial in ensuring the preservation of these remarkable tortoises.


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