Until the lone woman was discovered, the Galapagos tortoise species was thought to be extinct

Until the lone woman was discovered, the Galapagos tortoise species was thought to be extinct

Researchers were taken aback when a little female tortoise was discovered in 2019 on the inaccessible volcanic island of Fernandina in the Galapagos. Only one other tortoise, a huge male solitary, had been discovered there previously, by explorer Rollo Beck in 1906. The “fantastic giant tortoise,” or Chelonoidis phantasticus, was assumed to be extinct until scientists discovered this critter. “It was almost too good to be true that there was a tortoise living on Fernandina. We were all just so excited,” said Evelyn Jensen, lecturer in molecular ecology at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom and coauthor of a study published Thursday in the journal Communications Biology.

“The arch in the shell gives these tortoises much greater range of motion with their necks, allowing them to reach up higher to eat vegetation up off the ground, so it may have evolved to gain access to more food,” Jensen said. The 1906 tortoise had an extreme saddleback shape and distinctive flaring around the edges, which is why it was dubbed “phantasticus,” she said. Fernanda’s status as a native phantasticus tortoise was in doubt because she had a smaller, smoother shell without any of this flaring, though some questioned if her growth had been stunted and caused her features to be distorted.

But when Fernanda was initially compared with the 1906 male specimen, kept in a collection at the California Academy of Sciences, the two looked so different that scientists had to question if they were the same species. Some of the Galapagos tortoises have a domed upper shell, called a carapace, that resembles an upside-down bowl. But some species, such as the male specimen from Fernandina, have a saddleback-style carapace in which the front of the upper shell above the head and neck arches upward, Jensen said.

Perhaps Fernanda was another species entirely, having floated over from another island in the Galapagos archipelago. Together, these islands are home to 14 distinct species of giant tortoise. There may be another tortoise yet to be identified, according to recent research. The Fernandina tortoises were thought to have gone extinct due to the island’s active volcano, which has erupted about 25 times in the past two centuries. Lava flows have likely reduced the small pockets of vegetation where the tortoises could live and feed. The island is isolated along the western edge of the archipelago.

There is evidence that suggests there may be more phantasticus. Tortoise scats have been spotted on the island as recently as 2014. Much of Fernandina has yet to be explored because extensive fields of lava prevent anyone from reaching its interior.

To answer the question of Fernanda’s heritage, the research team first sequenced Fernanda’s complete genome and then compared it with that of the 1906 tortoise as well as genomes from the other 13 species of giant tortoise in the Galapagos. Fernanda’s DNA told a surprising story, much like the discovery of the tortoise herself. “We saw — honestly, to my surprise — that Fernanda was very similar to the one that they found on that island more than 100 years ago, and both of those were very different from all of the other islands’ tortoises,” coauthor Stephen Gaughran, geneticist and postdoctoral research fellow at Princeton University, said in a statement. The species thought to be extinct for 100 years finally had a proven, living member.

“Fernandina is the highest of the Galapagos islands, geologically young, and is mainly a huge pile of jagged blocks of brown lava,” coauthor Peter Grant, professor emeritus of zoology and professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, said in a statement. “At lower elevations, the vegetation occurs in island-like clumps in a sea of recently congealed lava. Fernanda was found in one of these, and there is evidence that a few relatives may exist in others.” Two expeditions to search for more tortoises such as Fernanda since her 2019 discovery have been unsuccessful, but the Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Conservancy plan to conduct more campaigns with the hope of preserving the species.

Fernanda now lives at the park’s 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. Both Fernanda and the 1906 tortoise have really high genetic diversity compared with the other species of Galapagos tortoise, Jensen said. “This means that even if just a few other Fernandina tortoises were found and bred together, any offspring are unlikely to suffer negative impacts of inbreeding,” she said.

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