Long Live the Fernanda Tortoise

Jun 13, 2022 | Daily Space, Earth

IMAGE: In 2019, the female tortoise nicknamed “Fernanda” was found in an isolated patch of vegetation, cut off from the main vegetated area on the southeast of the island by several lava flows. CREDIT: Lucas Bustamante / Galapagos Conservancy

This is a space show, and while our Earth is definitely a planet, we try to avoid talking about life except when it helps us directly understand our planet. We’ve brought you tree rings and clam shells that record the geologic ages and fossils recording asteroid impacts.

But sometimes – especially when a new Jurassic Park movie is coming out – it is important to remind everyone that life can find a way.

Note: We are not sponsored by Jurassic Park, but we could be.

The geology of our world slowly changes over time. New islands rise up from the sea; new mountains rise up from the planes. Over time, plants and animals will migrate into these environments and both change the environment and adapt to what is around them. Over time, the plants and animals in these isolated locations will diverge from the populations their ancestors came from. In my fish tank, I have two tiny fish with the exact same body shape — one is stripy and the other spotty. They are from neighboring lakes in Indonesia, and time gave them distinctive looks. Looking around the world, we see the pygmy elephant on Sumatra and the pygmy sloth of the Isla Escudo de Veraguas.

But where many species get smaller, sometimes we also see things get bigger. Such is the case with the many varieties of Galapagos tortoise. And it turns out, sometimes, even a giant tortoise can be hiding.

Back in 1906, a giant tortoise was collected from Fernandina Island in the Galapagos. This was a pretty unique tortoise and, unfortunately, was thought to be one of the last of its kind. For the last hundred years, folks thought this kind of tortoise was extinct, but in 2019, a large female was found on the island – which they named Fernanda – and genetic testing revealed that Fernanda is of the same species as that 1906 specimen. Fernanda is abnormally small, and her age is estimated to be well over fifty, but an exact age wasn’t possible to determine. It’s possible she was just a hatchling when the last adult of her kind went extinct.

Researchers on the island have found evidence of at least a couple of other turtles – maybe two to three – also living on the island. According to researcher Evelyn Jensen: What comes next for the species depends on whether any other living individuals can be found. If there are more Fernandina tortoises, then a breeding program could start to bolster the population. We hope that Fernanda is not the ‘ending’ of her species.

And we here at the Daily Space also hope there will be many more tortoises in a growing population for tortoise generations to come.

More Information

Newcastle University press release

The Galapagos giant tortoise Chelonoidis phantasticus is not extinct,” Evelyn L. Jensen et al., 2022 June 9, Communications Biology

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