Discovery of Lonely Tortoise Doubles Known Members of Galapagos Species

June 17, 2022

The discovery in 2019 of a lone small female tortoise living on one of the most inaccessible islands of the Galapagos Islands has baffled evolutionary biologists. Only one other tortoise, a large male discovered in 1906, has ever been found on Fernandina Island, an isolated island on the western edge of the iconic archipelago. The recently published paper compares the genome of this female tortoise ”Fernanda” with the only other tortoise ever found on this island more than 100 years ago, a male now residing in the collections of the California Academy of Science. When we sequenced the genomes of both individuals and compared them to the genomes of all the other Giant Galapagos tortoise species we found that the two were very similar, strongly suggesting that “Fernanda” belongs to the same species. This raises hopes to find additional alive individuals of this species on the island (a tough island to explore given the large amounts of lava flows that are almost everywhere). It also confirms that indeed there was a Giant Galapagos tortoise species on that island. Lastly, it shows the importance of museum specimens as they can not only provide invaluable historical insights on current biodiversity but also they can offer evidence that can help preserve it.