Written by Madhav Bahl, a grade 9 student
It is said that nature is full of miracles and it can pull a trick or two, if not tampered with. A species of giant tortoise thought to be extinct was rediscovered on Galapagos Islands recently- A lone centenarian female. Such discoveries surprise and delight us, and add to our scientific knowledge. It gives us hope that nature might survive human destruction after all.
The Galapagos Islands
Off the coast of Ecuador – a country in northwest South America, is an archipelago of volcanic islands in the Pacific Ocean named Galapagos, of the islands of tortoises. These remote islands are home to giant tortoises, marine iguana, darwin’s Finches, and many other unique organisms found only on these islands.
Galapagos islands became famous as Charles Darwin visited these islands and his research helped build his theory of evolution. Once upon a time, these islands were home to hundreds of thousands of tortoises. Sadly, only a few thousand remain today.
The Species that wasn’t extinct
The Galapagos giant tortoise, of the subspecies Chelonoidis phantasticus, was understood to have become extinct a hundred years ago. In 1906, researchers from the California Academy of Sciences had taken a male specimen of this subspecies. Recently, a group of rangers found a female giant tortoise which they believed was a member of that extinct species. It was found on Fernandina Island during a joint expedition of two departments- the Galapagos national park and the Galapagos conservancy.
A lucky break
In 2019, Yale University scientists used the DNA of the male tortoise taken in 1906 to identify this female. The female is over a hundred years old and has been named Fernanda. She has been housed at the breeding centre in Santa Cruz. As giant tortoises live up to 200 years, scientists are keen to find a mate for her and hope to see the species thrive again. Some telltale signs, bite marks on cacti, faeces have been discovered. It might be that Fernanda is not alone and there are other members of her species, Chelonoidis phantasticus, on Fernandina Island.
Paradise in peril
Galapagos Islands are a unique example of how nature creates diversity when species evolve in isolation. The rich diversity of the islands has been under attack from whalers, poachers, and wildlife smugglers since they were discovered. Many subspecies became extinct because they were hunted, captured, and sold. Scientists and conservationists are working hard to preserve what is left of the flora and fauna of these islands.
Breeding programmes are not always successful, however. A few years back, a Pinta Island tortoise, Lonesome George, was the last of his species. Several attempts were made to mate him with females from the closest related species. But no offsprings were born. Lonesome George died and a species was lost forever.
Scientists are hopeful that Fernanda will prove to be luckier and will save her species. They are determined that Chelonoidis phantasticus does not suffer the same fate as Lonesome George.
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