Fernanda the turtle, whose species everyone thought was extinct – Mother Jones
As usual, the staff of Mother Jones gather heroes and monsters of the past year. Find all the heroes and monsters of 2021 here.
There is, most likely, no organism as friendless as Fernanda the giant tortoise. In 2019, scientists spotted it on Fernandina Island, a desolate volcanic landmass in the Galapagos. At the time, they suspected that she might be a member of Chelonoidis phantasticus, a species of giant tortoise native to the island that was believed to be long extinct. In fact, the last time anyone saw a giant Fernandina tortoise was in 1906. When this individual died, scientists assumed the species had died with it.
To check his lineage, a Yale team analyzed a sample of his blood. In May, they finally shared the exciting news: Fernanda was, in fact, closely related to the turtle seen in 1906, making him a card holder of the Chelonoidis phantasticus species. And, at around 100 years old – average age in turtle years – Fernanda could, in theory, produce offspring. All she needed was a mate.
Suddenly, Fernanda went from supposedly dead to the most eligible turtle in the world. While the fate of this rare species depends on Fernanda’s ability to procreate, environmentalists have launched an “urgent expedition” to find her a male mate. “The rediscovery of this lost species may have come just in time to save it,” James Gibbs, turtle expert at State University of New York, said in a press release. “We must now urgently complete the search for the island for more turtles.”
The turtle’s mating efforts have had mixed success. A giant tortoise named Diego, a member of a different species from the EspaÃ±ola Island of the Galapagos, was brought from the San Diego Zoo to a breeding facility in the Galapagos in 1976. Soon after, it became clear that he was endowed with a remarkable libido. : For four decades, the facility has increased its turtle population from 15 individuals to around 2,000. According to genetic testing, Diego is the father of approximately 40% of the group. He retired, a legend, in 2019.
But then there was Lonesome George. Like Fernanda, the species of Lonesome George, Chelonoidis abingdoni, also known as the Pinta turtle, was considered extinct. When it was discovered in 1971, researchers searched from afar for a female Pinta turtle, to no avail. And although Lonesome George shared an enclosure with female turtles of similar species, he produced no offspring and died in 2012.
With Fernanda, environmentalists hope to avoid another Lonesome George situation. And they have reason to be optimistic: The team that discovered Fernanda also found footprints and poo belonging to at least two other turtles on Fernandina Island. The search for more turtles on the island is ongoing, Gibbs told me in an email, with an expedition “to explore the remaining unexcavated areas” scheduled for early 2022.
It is not known if Fernanda has ever made contact with these turtles. She may have wandered her 245 square mile island without a true companion (as far as we know), for over a century. And now she has been tasked with saving her species. If that doesn’t scream at the hero, I don’t know what does.