Newcastle University scientists find giant tortoise from species thought to be extinct a century ago

A Giant Galapagos tortoise at ZSL London Zoo Credit: PA Images

Newcastle University scientists have found that a rare species of giant tortoise, thought to have died out more than a century ago is not actually extinct.

Research has shown that a female tortoise - who has since been named Fernanda - who was discovered on one of the Galapagos Islands three years ago, was related to the only previously-known tortoise of her kind which was found in 1906.

The 2019 female tortoise and the 1906 male tortoise were found to share genetic material that is different to the other living tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.

Study lead author Dr Evelyn Jensen, a lecturer in molecular ecology at Newcastle University said: "Only two tortoises have ever been found on Fernandina Island, and here we have shown that they are indeed members of the same species, and different from the other Galapagos tortoises.

"It is a truly exciting discovery that the species is not in fact extinct, but lives on."

Fernandina Island is an active volcano at the western side of the Galapagos Islands, which Charles Darwin visited in 1835, inspiring his theory of evolution.

Fernanda, who was found in an isolated patch of land, which is cut off by lava flows, is around 50 years old and has suffered stunted growth.

She is in a similar position to 'Lonesome George', who was famed for being the last of the Pinta Island Galapagos giant tortoises.

However, at least two or three more tortoises were found to be living on the island, giving hope that Fernanda may not be the last of her kind.

Dr Jensen added: "What comes next for the species depends on whether any other living individuals can be found.

"If there are more Fernandina tortoises, then a breeding programme could start to bolster the population.

"We hope that Fernanda is not the 'endling' of her species."

She is now being kept in captivity in the Galapagos National Park Tortoise Centre while Dr Jensen and colleagues will continue to study how the Fernandina species fits into the evolutionary history of the Galapagos giant tortoises.