Giant Tortoise Feared Extinct Reappears After 113 Years
As well as the Fernandina tortoise, another “giant” species thought to be possibly extinct showed up this year—Wallace’s giant bee.
Fernandina giant tortoise. Image: Ecuador Ministry of Environment
The Fernandina giant tortoise, which has not been seen alive since 1906, has been spotted on its namesake island in the Galápagos, says the government of Ecuador.
The tortoise herself may be over 100 years old, according to a statement released Wednesday by Ecuador’s ministry of the environment.
The Fernandina tortoise, native to the Galápagos Islands, is considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and some feared it might be extinct.
The tortoise was found by park ranger Jeffeys Malaga and tortoise preservation expert Washington Tapia, members of the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI). The collaborative project between Galápagos National Park and the Galápagos Conservancy, an American nonprofit, aims to breed tortoises in captivity and reintroduce them to islands where the animals have become endangered or entirely absent.
A sighting of the species from an airplane was reported in 2009, but it was never confirmed to be a Fernandina giant tortoise. The GTRI discovery marks the first confirmed sighting of the animal since 1906.
The team transferred the tortoise by boat to a breeding center on nearby Santa Cruz Island, and will search for possible mates for her.
Malaga and Tapia found some promising evidence that she may not be the sole survivor of her kind. The pair observed tortoise feces on Fernandina Island that could have been left by other individuals of the species, which is known scientifically as Chelonoidis phantasticus.
"This encourages us to strengthen our search plans to find other tortoises, which will allow us to start a breeding program in captivity to recover this species," said Danny Rueda, director of the Galapagos National Park, in a statement.
In a weird case of zoological kismet, another “giant” species long feared extinct also showed up this year—Wallace’s giant bee ( Megachile pluto).
Last seen in 1981 by entomologist Adam Messer, this Indonesian insect is the world’s largest known bee species. The wingspan of the female can reach 2.5 inches, though the male is only half as big.
Deforestation has resulted in major losses of the bee’s native habitat in the lowland forests of the North Maluku islands. After several expeditions launched specifically to find the Wallace’s giant bee, a team of biologists finally came across a female in January, and announced their find this week. She was occupying a termite nest in a tree.
“It was absolutely breathtaking to see this ‘flying bulldog’ of an insect that we weren’t sure existed any more,” Clay Bolt, the photographer who captured the first images of the bee, told The Guardian.
“To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.