Fernanda the Tortoise, an Extinct Species’ Return?

The discovery of a one-of-a-kind Galápagos Island tortoise named Fernanda hints at the genetic survival of an extinct species.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

The discovery of a one-of-a-kind Galápagos Island tortoise named Fernanda hints at the genetic survival of an extinct species. Image Unsplash.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The discovery of a one-of-a-kind Galápagos Island tortoise named Fernanda hints at the genetic survival of an extinct species.

Ecuadorian conservationists stumbled upon Fernanda, an astonishing shelled relic, while surveying a remote volcanic island of the Galápagos chain. 

Meandering through Fernandina Island’s recent lava terrain was a lone female tortoise, some 50 years of age. Dubbed Fernanda, the discovery of this creature may resurrect a species scientists long presumed extinct: the enigmatic Fernandina or phantasticus giant tortoise, a type of Galápagos behemoth known from a single male individual discovered way back in 1906. Excitement over a found-again species soon created more questions than answers, as clues emerged that the two tortoises’ improbable 113-year gap didn’t quite add up. As partners now pivot to future searches and breeding programs, Fernanda’s jagged shell and genetic riddles spotlight complexities revealing species gone.

Fernanda’s sparse, arid home, the Galápagos’ Fernandina Island, endures some of Earth’s most frequent volcanic activity. Lava fields have severed habitats, restricting food access for lumbering tortoise giants. The island landscape morphs so rapidly that expeditions must dodge unstable crater lakes and recently resurfaced realms appearing overnight. These realities provoked assumptions that Fernandina Island’s tortoises had been pushed into extinction long ago amid surroundings inhospitable for even the hardy reptiles.

See also: Deep Sea Coral Reef Discovery Boosting Hopes for Marine Conservation.

The 2019 breakthrough spotting came during a joint Galápagos Conservancy and Galápagos National Park foray through the island’s topography, hunting for traces of the vanished Fernandina species. Researchers were elated to finally record a living member, yet puzzled by Fernanda’s stunted stature and steep-fronted shell markedly distinct from the 1906 museum specimen—an adult male whose elongated carapace juts backward like a bison’s shoulder hump. Could lava-ravaged habitat alone explain divergent growth? Or had a non-native tortoise somehow crossed the ocean from afar? Genetic analysis only complicates matters further.

Fernanda’s DNA closely matched the century-old male across multiple gene comparisons, affirming species kinship. Had they been less related, interbreeding between native Galápagos tortoise species might explain some shell shape discrepancy. But close correlation suggests separation around 240,000 to 280,000 years ago, not nearly long enough in evolutionary timespans for outright morphological divergence between members of a single species. So, suspicions shifted to whether Fernanda descended partially from another species through past hybrid pairings.

Tortoise translocation was common before conservation mindsets prevailed. Humans scattered giant tortoises willy-nilly between Galápagos islands as handy living provisions for sailors. Extinct on their own turf, Fernandina tortoises may have encountered immigrant wanderers, producing Fernanda generations later. Extracting her exact genetic profile will take extensive tests beyond standard DNA markers. 

For now, evidence suggests just two tortoises comprise the entire global census of their kind. Even if researchers succeed in locating more Fernandina tortoises during impending search efforts, safeguarding survival will require navigating a tortuous gauntlet. Simply sheltering and breeding relocated founders can’t substitute long-deteriorated island habitats. 

While likely occupying less hostile terrain, custom enclosures on alternate Galápagos isles would cement the species’ extinction from native ranges. However, with climate shifts already swelling Fernandina’s explode-again peak, prospects feel iffy for the natural recovery of durable vegetation sufficient to maintain stable breeding colonies without intensive ecosystem restoration.

In the midst, resilient Fernanda munches nonchalantly on, seemingly unaware she straddles tragic extinction tipping points. When the conservancy crew nearly tripped over her, was she plodding along ancient routes, likely the same ones her ancestors traveled for millennia? As conservation’s poster child, this ambling survivor spotlights challenges protecting rare species when only known from scant remnants scattered on landscapes facing unrelenting change. 

Fernandina Island’s namesake tortoises may yet cheat extinction through coordinated action, but in situations like these, destiny teeters fatefully. Where Fernanda once roamed solo, suitors may still wander, hidden. Only united efforts leveraging science and compassion can spin hope that more fantastic tortoises await discovery—and just maybe—resurrection after all.

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