17.6 C
Byron Shire
June 30, 2022

Fantastic giant tortoise, thought to be extinct in 1906, confirmed alive on a Galápagos island

Latest News

Flood-prone land in Murwillumbah swapped for flood-free land 

It has been five years in the making but the innovative land swap of flood-prone land for flood-free land in Murwillumbah is underway with a second round of ‘expressions of interest’ about to open. 

Other News

Drains, floods, creeks

I was thankful for Duncan Dey’s input at the last Council meeting where two representatives spoke in public access...

You may have missed… mangroves’ carbon storage potential, smart implants, and twitter misinformation

Mangrove forests are massive carbon sinks, capable of storing over 1,000 tonnes of carbon per hectare.

Govt to rebuild Northern Rivers from July 1

The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC) will come into existence from July 1. So what is it, and how will it assist flood-affected residents across the region?

Lismore council flirts with ‘koala-killer’ status

The fate of one of the state’s last koala populations appears to lie in the hands of the Lismore City Council after an extraordinary meeting Thursday afternoon.

Editorial – Byron Council report card

Did you know it’s been six months since councillors were elected? They have another two years to go, and while a usual term is a gruelling four years, this time, it’s shorter, owing to a disrupting bat virus.

Byron Council releases data on flood-affected biz

The first official data has been released following the devastating February 28 floods.

Fernanda, the only known living Fernandina giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus, or “fantastic giant tortoise”). Photo Courtesy of the Galápagos Conservancy

Brought to you by Cosmos Magazine and The Echo

DNA shows that the tortoise is really phantasticus.

In 2019, a female giant tortoise was found on Fernandina Island, in the Galápagos archipelago. Fernanda, as she is now called, was a miracle find, with researchers suspecting she might be a fantastic giant tortoise, or Chelonoidis phantasticus, a species believed to have gone extinct in 1906.

Now, peer-reviewed DNA evidence has finally confirmed it: Fernanda is a fantastic giant tortoise, and the species is not extinct.

The DNA evidence suggesting Fernanda was distinct was announced last year, but it has now been peer-reviewed (assessed by independent experts) and published in Communications Biology.

The researchers sequenced Fernanda’s genome, as well as the DNA from the last confirmed phantasticus specimen, collected in 1906.

The researchers then compared this DNA to that from 13 other species of Galápagos giant tortoises. They found that the DNA from Fernanda and the 1906 specimen were distinct from all the others, but related to each other.

“For many years it was thought that the original specimen collected in 1906 had been transplanted to the island, as it was the only one of its kind,” says Peter Grant, a professor of zoology and ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, US.

“It now seems to be one of a very few that were alive a century ago.”

More on Galápagos giant tortoise genetics: The genome of Lonesome George

Fernanda doesn’t look exactly like the male 1906 specimen, so ecologists weren’t initially sure they were the same species.

“Like many people, my initial suspicion was that this was not a native tortoise of Fernandina Island,” says paper co-author Dr Stephen Gaughran, a postdoctoral research fellow in ecology and evolutionary biology also at Princeton.

While tortoises can’t swim between islands, they do occasionally float across during storms, or get carried by sailors.

“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,” says Gaughran.

“The finding of one alive specimen gives hope and also opens up new questions, as many mysteries still remain,” says senior author Dr Adalgisa Caccone, a researcher in ecology and evolutionary biology at Yale University, US.

“Are there more tortoises on Fernandina that can be brought back into captivity to start a breeding program? How did tortoises colonise Fernandina, and what is their evolutionary relationship to the other giant Galápagos tortoises?

“This also shows the importance of using museum collections to understand the past.”

Fernanda is small, but estimated to be over 50 years of age. Researchers have found tracks and scat of at least two other tortoises on Fernandina, meaning there’s a small chance she may not be the last of her kind.

More on the Galápagos Islands: More to learn about evolution from Galápagos finches

The genetic relations between Fernanda and other tortoises described in the paper also bring new questions to the fore.

“The genetic work provides intriguing hints of a mixing of genes with members of another population,” says Grant.

“It would be fascinating if confirmed by future detective work on the genome. Another thought-provoking finding is the nearest relatives are not on the nearest very large island (Isabela) but on another (Española) far away on the other side of Isabela. The question of how the ancestors reached Fernandina is left hanging.”

Interested in having science explained? Listen to our new podcast.

This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Ellen Phiddian. Ellen Phiddian is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a BSc (Honours) in chemistry and science communication, and an MSc in science communication, both from the Australian National University.

Published by The Echo in conjunction with Cosmos Magazine.

Support The Echo

Keeping the community together and the community voice loud and clear is what The Echo is about. More than ever we need your help to keep this voice alive and thriving in the community.

Like all businesses we are struggling to keep food on the table of all our local and hard working journalists, artists, sales, delivery and drudges who keep the news coming out to you both in the newspaper and online. If you can spare a few dollars a week – or maybe more – we would appreciate all the support you are able to give to keep the voice of independent, local journalism alive.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

First Nations place-names under Ballina council spotlight

Greater efforts at reconciliation with First Nations people in the Ballina Shire when it comes to place-names is to happen after furious agreement at June’s council meeting.

Police seeking public assistance following Byron Bay assault

A serious assault in Byron Bay on Friday, 3 June, 2022 has led to police releasing further CCTV footage and another appeal for information from the public. 

Festival/Byron Council relations strained, motion passes

The operations manager of the Byron Music Festival says her attempts to run the event this year were cruelled by Byron Council staff, who allegedly provided organisers with false information and spoke to them like they were ‘idiots’.

Govt considers underwriting small energy retailers after Enova’s collapse

In the wake of the collapse of local green energy retailer, Enova, the NSW government say they are considering underwriting small energy retailers who face unfair market competition from large retailers who also generate electricity.