Scientists seek out mate for only known Fernandina Island Galapagos tortoise

By Susana Madera

Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, Sep 16 (EFE).- The Fernandina Island Galapagos tortoise had not been seen in more than a century when a middle-aged female was surprisingly discovered in 2019, offering scientists hope that this long-living reptile species could be saved from extinction.

Now an expedition has been planned on that remote Pacific archipelago, an Ecuadorian province, to try and find other members of that same species, and particularly a potential male mate for Fernanda.

Weather permitting, experts from the Galapagos Conservancy and Galapagos National Park rangers will set off toward year’s end for volcanic and uninhabited Fernandina Island in hopes of finding between one and three other “Chelonoidis phantasticus” tortoises, a species that can live to be around 200 years old.

“We found tracks that were clearly tortoise footprints, feces that weren’t that old, in very different locations from where we discovered Fernanda,” Galapagos Conservancy Director Washington Tapia told Efe.

That tortoise, who is “probably 80, 100 years old, perhaps more” and was determined through genetic studies conducted at Yale University to be a Fernandina giant tortoise, was found by chance on the final day of an expedition.

She was discovered in an isolated vegetation patch that had been cut off by lava flows. Due to a lack of sufficient food, she weighed just 18.4 kilos (40 pounds) and was only 54.3 centimeters (21 inches) in length, compared to an expected weight and length for an adult female of 30 kilos and between 60-65 centimeters, respectively.

Having received special care for the past three years on Galapagos’s Santa Cruz Island, Fernanda now weighs nearly 28 kilos and has grown about three millimeters (0.12 inches).

She is “very healthy,” “doesn’t like people very much” and is kept isolated in a secure pen without access to the public, the expert said, adding that she receives food and water there, although not on a daily basis.

The reason is that the Galapagos National Park Breeding Center strives to provide conditions that are as natural as possible so the tortoises do not lose their ability to forage for food.

Lola Villacreses, a Galapagos nature guide for the past 22 years, told Efe that 50,000 saddleback- and domed-shell giant tortoises currently live on the archipelago, which once was home to around 350,000 of those animals.

“Spanish galleons came here to take refuge because they were being pursued by pirate ships, as well as to stock up on food,” including tortoises, she said, adding that privateers and whalers later arrived and also consumed the meat of that reptile.

Human beings introduced different animals to the islands such as dogs, which attacked the tortoises. The numbers of those reptiles also were affected by a “slaughter in the late 1800s and early 1900s to extract their oil to light street lamps in Guayaquil and Quito,” Tapia added.

Pirates and whalers moved among the islands and may have taken the tortoises with them, so genetic studies would need to be conducted to determine the species of any more of these reptiles found on Fernandina Island.

During the expeditions, scientists must sleep in tents and “walk on a giant lava field,” said Villacreses, while Tapia added that searching for “animals dispersed over a more than 600-square-kilometer (250-square-mile) rugged surface is like looking for a needle in a haystack or a phone chip in a very large park.”

Each expedition lasts 10 days, involves the participation of between 20 and 30 people and costs around $60,000. But that cost doubles at year’s end because helicopters will be used for transportation.

The island, an active shield volcano, has slopes as steep as 70 degrees and is mostly covered in lava, often with a sharp spiny surface.

“Sometimes crossing a one-kilometer lava flow can take us three hours, and a pair of typical ‘trekking’ boots lasts us just one day,” Villacreses said.

“Now the priority is finding more tortoises. We’ve got our fingers crossed that one will be a male,” Tapia said, adding that he is hopeful that Fernanda can reproduce and prolong her critically endangered species’ existence. EFE


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