Giant tortoise thought to be extinct over a century ago found on Galapagos

A giant tortoise thought to have gone extinct 112 years ago has been rediscovered on the Galapagos’ Fernandina Island.

Scientists at Connecticut’s Yale University confirmed genetic similarity between a now-deceased large male found in 1906 and a lone female giant tortoise found during a 2019 joint expedition of the Galapagos National Park Directorate (GNPD) and Galapagos Conservancy.


A blood sample sent to Yale geneticist Gisella Caccone confirmed that the female “Fernanda” or “Fern” is related to the Chelonoidis phantasticus tortoise species native to the island, the conservancy said earlier this week

It’s a discovery even actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio tweeted about. 

“Giant tortoises are critical to #rewilding the Galápagos. Fern pictured below is the only-known Fernandina Giant Tortoise – giving us hope for the rediscovery of the remaining lost species on @rewild’s list,” DiCaprio said, referring to the international conservation group Re:wild, of which he is a founding member. 

Re:wild works directly with the GNPD and Island Conservation and this year DiCaprio announced a $43 million pledge to enact sweeping conservation operations across the region.

Now, the hunt for a male tortoise is on, in a desperate attempt to save the species. And, in a landscape dominated by an active volcano, no less.

“To avoid the same tragic fate as Lonesome George – the last Pinta Giant Tortoise who died in 2012 – an urgent expedition to Fernandina Island will be launched by GNPD and Galápagos Conservancy to find a mate and save the species,” the group wrote.

If the search proves fruitful, a male tortoise would be united with Fernanda at the Galapagos National Park’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Center in Santa Cruz, California.

After breeding under the eye of researchers, the tortoises would be returned to Fernandina. 

Before 2019, only one of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise had been found during a year-long California Academy of Sciences expedition in 1905.

The release said that previous populations of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise species were believed to be extinct due to volcanic eruptions and that the current population of giant tortoises throughout the Galapagos archipelago is now just 10%-15% of its historical numbers.

Park rangers have reportedly found tracks and scat of at least two other tortoises during the expedition and plan to set out again in September.


“One of the greatest mysteries in Galápagos has been the Fernandina Island Giant Tortoise. Rediscovering this lost species may have occurred just in the nick of time to save it. We now urgently need to complete the search of the island to find other tortoises,” said James Gibbs, vice president of science and conservation for the Galapagos Conservancy and tortoise expert at the State University of New York, said in the release.

In order to do so, the conservancy has launched an urgent call for donations to undertake the effort.

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