Fernanda, the giant tortoise of the Galapagos believed to be extinct

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, one could say by paraphrasing the famous book written by JK Rowling. Yes, because exactly this has happened in the Galapagos: the very rare “fantastic giant tortoise” has been identified – after more than a century that it was believed extinct.

From the scientific name of Chelonoidis phantasticus the one that has been renamed Fernandasince it was found on the inaccessible Fernandina Island in an area of ​​the western Galapagos, it is the second turtle of this species known so far since the explorer in 1906 Rollo Beck he spotted a male specimen. Since then this species was considered extinct: in 2019, however, Fernanda, a female tortoise that had all the characteristics of the “giants” told in the last century, was discovered in a dense scrub of vegetation on the islet. Only now, however, thanks to the analysis of the DNA, has the confirmation arrived that it is indeed a “fantastic giant tortoise” explain the researchers of the University of Princeton and Yale who have just told the details of the discovery in the magazine Communications Biology.

For experts this is an important hope in terms of restoration of the species and biodiversity. So far, “everything we knew about this species told us it was in fact extinct,” explained the biologist. Stephen Gaughran, author of the study. In order to establish that the one identified was really a “fantastic” one, the researchers sequenced the genome of the 1906 turtle and that of Fernanda, comparing them. The two turtles were found to belong to the same species, which is different from the other 13 present in the Galapagos, most of which were considered vulnerable or endangered on the famous IUCN Red List.

Although reconstructed so far by the experts Fernanda is about 50 years old and is a little smaller than other giant tortoises of different species, this is due to the fact that on the island where she lived, of volcanic origin, the vegetation of which nourishes is scarce. What amazed the researchers, in addition to a slightly different shape, was the fact that Fernanda lived on a very distinct islet: how did she get there since these turtles do not swim? The most plausible idea is that, while floating, it may have been carried by currents and wind during intense weather events, or even because it was carried by someone. At the same time, experts are wondering whether other specimens have ever lived on Fernandina in the past.

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According to the Italian researcher Adalgisa Caccone of Yale University, another author of the study, “finding a live specimen gives hope and also opens up new questions, as many mysteries still remain. Are there other turtles on Fernandina that can be brought back into captivity to start a breeding program? Did the tortoises colonize Fernandina and what is their evolutionary relationship with the other giant tortoises of the Galapagos? This also demonstrates the importance of using museum collections to understand the past, “he explained.

Answering the question of whether or not the survival of the newly rediscovered species will be possible is complex, but Michael Russelloan expert from the University of British Columbia not involved in the study, explains that “these results are extremely interesting from both an evolutionary and conservation point of view. A full investigation of Fernandina might be warranted to look for other individuals because there really is. it is a glimmer of hope that the species can still survive. “

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