By: April Carson
One of the giant tortoises from a Galápagos species that was long thought to be extinct has been rediscovered. Fernanda is the first of her kind to be discovered in more than a century, and she has been given the name after her home on Fernandina Island.
The last time anyone saw a tortoise from this species, known as Chelonoidis phantasticus, was in 1906. It was thought that the species had gone extinct due to hunting and competition for resources from introduced species such as rats and goats.
In 1906, a single example of the Fernandina Island Galápagos giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus, or "fantastic huge tortoise") was discovered. The opportunity to determine if the species is still alive came with the discovery of a female tortoise on Fernandina Island in 2019.
Dr. John White from the University of Florida and Dr. Steve Gaughran from Princeton University discovered that two known Fernandina tortoises are members of the same species and genetically distinct from all other Galápagos dwarf tortoises by sequencing the genomes of both living and museum specimens and comparing them to the rest of the 13 species. He co-authored a recent Communication Biology paper that demonstrated her existence's sustainability.
In 1906, ornithologists discovered a new species of finch on the Galápagos Islands and named it the sharp-beaked ground finch. The thought years later is that this initial specimen was transplanted to the island where they found it, as opposed to being one of many originals still living from a century ago. “It now seems to be one of a very few that were alive a century ago,” says Peter Grant, who has been studying evolution in these islands for over 40 years.
Many ecologists were skeptical about Fernanda being a native phantasticus tortoise when she was first discovered. She didn't have the male historical specimen's grand saddleback flare, but professionals speculated that her deformed features could be due to stunted growth. Even though they're unable to swim, during harsh storms like hurricanes, tortoises can float and be transported from one Galápagos island to another. There are also records of seafarers transporting them across islands throughout history.
But now that a living male has been found, there's no denying that the phantasticus tortoise is alive and well. And he's not the only one. Researchers believe that there may be as many as 2,000 of these creatures living on Isabela Island today.
"Like many people, my first thought was that this was not a native tortoise of Fernandina Island," said Gaughran, a Princeton postdoctoral research associate in ecology and evolutionary biology.
Gaughran sequenced Fernanda's entire genome and compared it to the genome he was able to recover from the specimen collected in 1906. He also compared those two genomes to samples from the other 13 Galápagos tortoise species — three individuals each of the 12 current species, and one representative of the vanished C. abingdonii.
Gaughran, who conducted the analyses after arriving at the University in February 2021, was surprised to find that Fernanda tortoises were very similar to those found on an island more than 100 years ago. Both groups of tortoises were different from all other island animals.
According to Caccone, the discovery of even a single living specimen raises both hopes and new questions. “Are there more tortoises on Fernandina that can be brought back into captivity for breeding? How did tortoises colonize Fernandina? What is their evolutionary relationship to other giant Galápagos tortoises?” she asked. “This also shows how important it is to use museum collections to understand the past.”
Dr. Cannizzo's technique can be used on almost any ancient piece of evidence. “The program doesn't care whether it's a seal, a tortoise, a human, or a Neanderthal; it's all the same to it,” he explained. “Genetics is genetics in most cases; it's in the interpretation where matters matter what kind of creature the DNA belongs to.”
At Princeton, Gaughran works to solve the puzzles of pinniped (seal and walrus) evolution alongside Andrea Graham and Bridgett vonHoldt.
“Stephen uncovers conservation mysteries, such as tortoises and pinnipeds, with the delicate and cautious usage of genetic and bioinformatic technologies,” says Graham. A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Barbara.
“He has an unique curiosity for discovering messages and codes in ancient remains,” said vonHoldt, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “Stephen routinely collects specimens from a few hundred years old up to a couple thousand, which genomic data can help us understand when these changes occurred throughout history.
From 1906 until recently, there have been rumors that giant tortoises lived on Fernandina Island, an active volcano located on the western edge of the Galápagos Islands' archipelago, which is said to be the world's largest unspoiled land.
The 'fantastic giant tortoise', C. phantasticus, was first discovered by explorer Rollo Beck in 1906. The name refers to the unusual shape of the males' shells, which have extreme flaring along the outer edge and conspicuous saddlebacking at the front. Saddlebacking is unique to Galápagos tortoises, and this species shows it more prominently than any of the others.
Although the existence of the Fernandina tortoise has long been a mystery to scientists, it was uncertain whether or not it would survive. In 1964, 18 scats were reported on the western slopes of the island, which were believed to be from tortoises. During the early 2000s, scat and a possible visual sighting from an airplane were observed, as well as another possible tortoise feces in 2014.
Because of its remote location, the island has remained largely untouched. Because of its isolation, the island's interior has been inaccessible.
“Fernandina is the highest of the Galápagos islands, geologically young, and is mainly a huge pile of jagged blocks of brown lava; Rosemary and I once climbed to the top,” Grant added. “Fernanda was found at lower elevations where the vegetation appears in isolated clumps rising from a sea of newly cooled lava. It is possible that Fernanda has some relatives living among these other groups.”
Although no one knows how old Fernanda is, she appears to be quite young because of the limited vegetation. Encouragingly, recent tracks and feces of at least 2 or 3 additional tortoises were discovered during other recent expeditions on the island.
The Fernandina giant tortoise is the rarest of all living tortoises, and perhaps the most endangered reptile on earth. Although other tortoises, such as those from the Galapagos Islands, have been downlisted from “endangered” to “vulnerable” by the IUCN Red List due to conservation efforts, the Fernandina tortoise has not yet recovered.
This study was published in the journal Scientific Reports.
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April Carson is the daughter of Billy Carson. She received her bachelor's degree in Social Sciences from Jacksonville University, where she was also on the Women's Basketball team. She now has a successful clothing company that specializes in organic baby clothes and other items. Take a look at their most popular fall fashions on bossbabymav.com
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