In 2019, scientists discovered one giant female tortoise on the pristine Fernandina Island, an active volcano in the Galápagos Islands. The tortoise named Fernanda descends from a species scientists believed extinct for over a century. “The significance of the find is huge,” said Evelyn Jensen, co-first author of the ground-breaking publication in the journal Communications Biology, and a lecturer in molecular ecology at Newcastle University. “To find that a species of Galápagos tortoise that was thought to be extinct for over 100 years is not in fact extinct, but lives on was truly amazing”. 
“Extinct” Galápagos Tortoise Discovered on Fernandina Island
Fernanda’s species is called Chelonoidis phantasticus. But its first found specimen became known as “the fantastic giant tortoise”. Explorer Rollo Beck discovered it on Fernandina Island in 1906. It stood out from other Galápagos tortoises because of its unique shell, which flares around the edge and sports distinct “saddlebacking,” a saddle-like shape. However, Fernanda didn’t display these features quite as prominently as the original find; this made scientists doubt her being a true Chelonoidis phantasticus at first. After all, tortoises can float or be transported from one island to another during storms.
“Like many people, my initial suspicion was that this was not a native tortoise of Fernandina Island,” said Stephen Gaughran, the author alongside Jensen, a postdoctoral research fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University.
Plus, there was no other fantastic giant tortoise for a century, leading many to believe the species went extinct until Fernanda appeared. Researchers believe her to be at least 50 years old although she is small than her predecessor. This growth stunt could be why this specimen’s distinct traits didn’t stand out as much as her ancestor’s. When discovered, lava flows had trapped Fernanda on an isolated part of vegetation away from the main area. At this point, the researchers took her to the Galápagos National Park Tortoise Center for further study.
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Proving Fernanda’s Species
As explained in the publication, researchers sequenced her genomes and the genomes of the original fantastic giant tortoise; this had stayed in the California Academy of Sciences collection for years until now. The results found the two tortoises are from the same lineage, unique from other species of Galápagos tortoises. “We saw — honestly, to my surprise — that Fernanda was very similar to the one that they found on that island more than 100 years ago; and both of those were very different from all of the other islands’ tortoises,” said Gaughran. 
“That Fernanda was found at all was a huge surprise,” Jensen said. “We really did not expect that there were any tortoises living on Fernandina Island, although there were rumors of signs of tortoises there over the decades.” 
Of course, the bubbling question is if there are others. While no more tortoises in this species have appeared, there are indicators that they might exist. Researchers found tracks and feces that may suggest two or three other tortoises living on the island.
“The discovery informs us about rare species that may persist in isolated places for a long time,” said Peter Grant, an emeritus professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. “This information is important for conservation. It spurs biologists to search harder for the last few individuals of a population to bring them back from the brink of extinction.”
Bringing Hope For Other Extinct Species
According to the nonprofit Galápagos Conservancy, there are 15 other species of Galápagos tortoises. The area boasts of its unique animals; some of these were studied by Charles Darwin as he created his theory on evolution.
Adalgisa Caccone, the senior author of the study and a lecturer in ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, poses questions about this find. Like if there’s the possibility of more tortoises like Fernanda and if the species can recover using a breeding program. Of course, there’s the question of how the fantastic giant tortoises came to the Galápagos Islands, to begin with. “The finding of one alive specimen gives hope and also opens up new questions as many mysteries still remain,” Caccone said.