Photo: Mark Romanov and John Harrington

A team of explorers on the Galápagos Island of Fernandina last week discovered a female giant tortoise from a species thought to have gone extinct in 1906.  The expedition was led by biologist Forrest Galante for Animal Planet’s series “Extinct or Alive” which seeks to find “extinct” animals by searching for them in locations where a given species could have found refuge to remain alive.  You can watch the episode this summer — it is the first such discovery for the show that has sought many similar creatures like the Tasmanian Tiger and the Dodo bird.

  • The Galápagos islands are known for their unique species of wildlife that helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution — as a result, they are a UNESCO world heritage site and a popular ecotourism destination.
  • The expedition team sent pictures and video of the rare tortoise to expert biologists at the Turtle Conservancy and they were able to confirm that she is a Chelonoidis phantasticus, or Fernandina Tortoise.
  • It is unclear how old the tortoise is, but it is believed that she could have fertilized eggs stored.  To survive, according to The Guardian, the species “will need more than one, but females may store sperm for a long time,” said Stuart Pimm, a professor of conservation ecology at Duke University. “There may be hope.”

The tortoise is now at the Fausto Llerena Tortoise Breeding Center on Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos, where they have successfully bred and released 4,000 Galapagos tortoises — the experts there hope that further expeditions will find a male and that the rediscovered tortoise may one day be able to breed.  “This facility will ensure her ongoing survival, a healthy diet and perhaps if sperm retention has occurred, fertile eggs and offspring,” Animal Planet said in a statement on its website. “The hope is that her discovery will prompt new searches and ongoing funding for the location of a suitable mate with the ultimate goal of re-releasing many healthy animals back onto the island.”

Why This Matters: Today mankind has altered the natural environment to such an extent that extinctions are far too common — as evidenced by our story about the first mammal extinction due to climate change.  But that does not mean there are not future discoveries of new species or places where species previously thought to be extinct have survived despite the obstacles humans have created for them.  About this amazing discovery, Galante said, “I believe she can become an icon of wildlife hope. She’s the rarest tortoise, if not animal, in the entire world and one of the largest discoveries in the Galapagos in the last century,”   So true, and we are inspired to tell these stories and help to build the global political will to protect more pristine places, like the Galapagos.

To Go Deeper:  Watch these Galápagos tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station fight for food.

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