“Extinct” Tortoise Discovered Alive on Remote Island
by Jessica Lopez, age 12
For nearly 100 years, scientists believed the Fernandina giant tortoise, native to the Galapagos Islands, had gone extinct. That changed when a recent expedition discovered evidence of this mysterious species on a remote island. Now, recent science is exploring how the tortoises’ population could make a comeback.
Washington Tapia, leader of the expedition, said, “For me it was the most important achievement of my life because I have been working on tortoise conservation for 30 years.” Tapia is the director of the nonprofit Galapagos Conservancy’s Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) and has devoted her life to tortoise conservation.
, more commonly known as the Fernandina giant tortoise was found by Tapia and a group of four rangers from the Galapagos National park: Jeffreys Malaga, Eduardo Vilema, Roberto Ballesteros, Simon Villama. Also involved was biologist and Animal Planet host, Forrest Galante, who funded the trip.
Scientists last saw the species in 1906; it was flagged as possibly extinct on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. It was not until 2017 when Mangala discovered a tortoise’s feces that the status was changed to critically endangered. Tapia says, “It was a clear indication the tortoises were still there.”
On the day of the expedition, the group searched for green patches across the island where tortoises might live. During the afternoon, they saw possible tortoise feces on a patch that measured a third of a square mile. The team also saw a tortoise bed that had soil pushed to the side with footprints in the dirt. At this point, the team was very close. Shortly, Malaga spotted a female tortoise 2.5 miles away in a patch of vegetation. This Fernandina tortoise was thought to be 100 years old.
She was taken to a breeding center on Santa Cruz Island. The decision to move the tortoise was made because the area had few resources and because the island's terrain was quite rugged. The island’s large size would make it difficult to locate the tortoise again. No other tortoises were spotted but the team hoped to find more on a later expedition when more tracks might be found in the soil. These tortoises can live up to 200 years old so if more are found, breeding efforts can be made to bring the critically endangered population back.
Tapia said, “It created hope for people to know conservation is possible and that changing human activities is necessary for it to continue.”
As of now, DNA samples from the female tortoise will be taken to Yale University to confirm the species. Tapia has no doubts that the tortoise is in fact a chelonoidis phantasticus; however, results will not be complete for a few months.
Tortoises are vital to the Galapagos Islands. As Tapia put it: “Tortoises in the Galapagos are like ecosystem engineers. They contribute to seed dispersal and mold the ecosystem. That ecological role is so important.”