Galapagos ‘fantastic tortoise’, thought extinct for 100 years, found alive

(ORDO NEWS) — Chelonoidis phantasticus, or “fantastic giant tortoise,” a species of tortoise from the Galapagos Islands that was known only from a single specimen in 1906 and was long thought to be extinct, has now been found alive.

Fernanda’s tortoise, named after its home island of Fernandina, is the first of its kind to be identified in over a century.

American and European geneticists successfully extracted DNA from a specimen found on the same island over a century ago and confirmed that Fernanda and the museum tortoise belong to the same species and are genetically distinct from all other Galapagos tortoises. An article about this was published in the journal Nature Communications Biology.

When Fernanda was discovered, many zoologists doubted that she was actually a native of these places. These turtles themselves cannot swim from one island to another, but in this case, some particularly strong hurricane could contribute to this.

There are also historical records of sailors moving turtles from island to island. “For many years it was believed that the specimen of the tortoise found in 1906 came to the island from the outside, as it turned out to be the only one of its kind,” explained Peter Grant, a professor of zoology at Princeton who was not involved in these studies.

“Like many others, I initially suspected that this turtle was not native, not from Fernandina Island,” admits one of the authors of the article, Stephen Gaugran, an evolutionary biologist at Princeton University.

To finally determine Fernanda’s species, Gaugran and his colleagues sequenced her complete genome and compared it with the genome recovered from the 1906 sample.

They also compared the two genomes with samples from 13 other Galápagos tortoise species, choosing three from each of the 12 living species and one from the extinct species C. abingdonii.

“To our surprise, we saw that Fernanda is very similar to the turtle that was found on the same island more than a hundred years ago, and both of them are very different from the turtles of all other islands,” said Gogran, who conducted these analyzes in February 2021 of the year.

The only known specimen of C. phantasticus, the “fantastic giant tortoise”, was found by the American traveler Rollo Howard Beck during his 1906 expedition.

It was called “fantastic” because of the unusual shape of the shell, which greatly expands to the outer edges and has a noticeable saddle in front.

Scientists estimate that Fernanda is over 50 years old, but she is relatively small, perhaps because the poor vegetation on the island did not allow her to grow properly. Reassuringly, other recent expeditions to the island have found footprints and feces from at least two or three of these turtles.


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