Finding The Fernandina Giant Tortoise
Forrest Galante, host of Animal Planet’s “Extinct or Alive” searches for a giant tortoise.
This story appeared in the May/June 2019 issue of REPTILES magazine.
There I stood, boots digging into the black crust of volcanic rock, looking out onto the edge of the world. The cooled, jagged lava beneath me shatters more like glass than stone.
A result from a recent eruption in 2009 and again in 2014 on Fernandina Island, the westernmost island of the Galapagos archipelago. From my vantage point, all I could see was the Pacific Ocean, lava and about a 0.00001 percent chance of finding our target—the Fernandina giant tortoise (Chelonoidis phantasticus).
This is no ordinary tortoise. Discovered in 1906, it is known only from a single specimen—an adult male from an expedition by the California Academy of Science. Since that trip, not a single other individual was seen. It did not help that the CAS killed the original animal in the name of “science.”
My friend and colleague, Ross Kiester, visited the island in 1964, finding traces of the animal—scat and a few bite marks from a cactus pad. Rumors floated in the wind that travelers saw tortoises, maybe from a stranded fisherman or by a pilot flying overhead. However, nothing substantial ever resulted. Finally, a few large lava flows in 1968 and again in the past decade signaled to the world that the tortoise was likely extinct, never to be seen again. Many herpetologists clung to the listing of the Fernandina giant tortoise by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN): “Possibly extinct in the wild.”
So, there I stood in November of 2018, lava flows be damned. I spent two days getting there, flying to Isabella Island before joining a small fishing boat to a Galapagos National Park ranger station. We set out for Fernandina early in the morning, crossing the channel to Punta Espinosa. Wading through a sea of biting flies and marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus cristatus), we remained cautiously optimistic this legendary tortoise still existed.
The marine iguanas on Fernandina Island are the largest colony in the world. Vast black lava flows slowly ripple as you approach, until one realizes in actuality that the lava is a dense mat of writhing iguanas. There is a melody of reptilian sneezes, as the iguanas expel excess salt through their nostrils between dives to feed on algae growing underwater. Unlike other iguanas, this species is quite content living literally on top of one another. An occasional scuffle breaks out between the dominant males but quickly subsides. Many of the juveniles and females don’t even bother to open their eyes as they sleep in the sun.
Sally lightfoot crabs scuttle across the rocks and leathery backs of basking iguanas, green sea turtles, and Galapagos sea lions. Young sea lions try to engage the iguanas coming back from feeding to no avail.
We follow a narrow path up to the base of the caldera. There is no way we can summit the volcano and search extensively for the tortoise in the two days we have permitted. Even drones are banned without the proper permits. We scour the few patches of greenery for any signs of animal life, but turn up empty handed as temperatures slowly climb toward 100°F. The heat bounces off the black igneous rock below, creating a living convection oven.
Eventually, we run out of water and head back to the beach, reassuring one another this is just a scouting trip and not to feel discouraged.
The iguanas huddle together at night, scrounging the last bit of communal warmth to endure the cold, windy nights. Temperatures on the beach can drop to 40°F at night. I feel like joining them, dropping in the fetal position to acknowledge my failure.
The Discovery of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise
“James, I hope you’re sitting down,” says the voice on the other end of a call. The voice belongs to Forrest Galante, host of Animal Planet’s “Extinct or Alive.” He called just as I finished doing check-ups with a few Galapagos tortoises at the Turtle Conservancy in California. I helped Forrest with planning his Fernandina episode to search for the lost tortoise, hoping to join him. Unfortunately, our plans to secure a helicopter fell through, so we agreed on finding a tortoise purely by hiking up the volcano was impossible. We would try again another time.“We found it,” Forrest declares.
I immediately stop everything I am doing and focus on the garbled voice, suffering through the static in the Galapagos.
“Let me move somewhere with better reception,” I panic. With no clear options, I just begin running to higher ground. “Are you lying to me? This isn’t funny.”
“Nope,” Forrest says, completely not reassuringly. “We find this wallow where a tortoise has clearly dug down to get into the moisture and we start freaking out. We’re like, ‘This isn’t months old, this is days to hours old.’ It was only five minutes after that that we looked 100 meters away and there, under the bush, you see this glistening tortoise butt.”
Breaking into a victorious chant of “Bravo, bravo,” the team immediately began to process the historic discovery. Galapagos Conservancy lead biologist, Washington Tapia, quickly identifies the tortoise as an adult female and an ancient one at that. In addition, the group notices that the health of the animal is questionable. No surprise for a tortoise living on a barren island, with no standing freshwater for most of the year.
“It was just the most celebratory incredible moment to see this animal that the whole world thought had not existed for over 100 years,” said Galante. “She was a little bit underweight and definitely dehydrated but we were just elated.”
Jeffrey Malaga, the hardened, stoic biologist for the Galapagos National Parks, was almost in tears. Despite the emotion, the team quickly realized they never had a plan in place if they found the tortoise. No one had ever imagined they would be holding one in their hands.
“The first thing we said was, ‘What do we do?’” Galante explained. “We all knew it was a bit of a pipe dream. Jeffrey Malaga and Washington Tapia had the authority to make the call, so we collected the tortoise, we took a blood sample, we measured her, we weighed, we checked her for parasites and we put a PIT tag in her.”
The struggle for survival on Fernandina is something no human has been able to conquer. While fishing villages and small cities dot many of the other islands, the extreme hostility of Fernandina kept humans from becoming established. Fortunately, this meant many invasive species that killed tortoises, like rats and goats failed to thrive. Unfortunately, so did the tortoises it seemed.
After a long debate, it was decided that the tortoise should return with the crew to the Fausto Llorena Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island instead of radio-tracking or similar method which could prove unreliable. There she could be nourished and hydrated back to ideal conditions and shown to the world hope still exists with the recovery of the species.
“The condition she was in was not great,” recalled Galante. “Don’t get me wrong, she was surviving, but she was struggling. She had an extremely hard life and we wanted to get her healthy and well.”
The team searched the area for another individual, hoping for a male counterpart that might be the foundation of a breeding pair for the recovery of the species. After two days scouring the patch of vegetation, no other animal or signs of another tortoise was encountered. Running out of water and food, the team of herpetologists had to return to base camp, but not without their newest member in tow. All that was left was to name her.
“She deserves a name like Lonesome George,” Galante proclaimed, harkening back to the Pinta Island giant tortoise male that was also the last of its kind despite searches for a mate. Lonesome George eventually passed away in 2014, and the Pinta Island giant tortoise went extinct, a harsh lesson for conservationists worldwide.
“We all sat there, and I forget who said it first, but it was myself and my camera team who were discussing it, and we came up with ‘Forgotten Fern,’” said Galante. “This was an animal that had been forgotten and Fern as in Fernandina.”
Fern currently rests in the secure hands of the staff at the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center, recovering in quarantine facilities under several watchful eyes. (At the date of publishing, Fern is now out of quarantine.) Immediately upon her return, Fern made it evident how hard her life was on Fernandina and how scarce resources are.
“For the first three days, she didn’t leave her shallow water.” Said Galante. “My guess is she hadn’t seen that much fresh water so she was just in heaven to have that much fresh water to drink up.”
Besides rehydration, Fern seems to be adjusting well to her new life. She is eating natural browse and being cared for by the staff at the Galapagos National Park. She is even putting on weight.
However, Fern’s provenance is still under debate. While there is no question she proves life on Fernandina is still possible, it’s unclear if she is definitively the lost species of Galapagos tortoise, Chelonoidis phantastica.
A team of international turtle biologists at the Turtle Conservancy studied the photos and video of the individual animal in question and confirmed it is likely to be Chelonoidis phantasticus, but until genetic analysis is complete, it is impossible to tell.
“Since only one other specimen of this species has ever been found (a deceased male collected in 1906), we have never seen a female of the species,” said Anders Rhodin of the Turtle Conservancy and IUCN specialist group. “The photos from the team clearly show a moderately saddlebacked, old female about half to two-thirds the size of the known male. Pending genetic confirmation, this is almost undoubtedly the lost Fernandina Giant Tortoise.”
However, others remain skeptical. The original specimen represents a species with a much more extreme saddlebacked carapace than Fern. This could mean that Fern is a transplant from another island or possibly even a hybrid, since she only displays a “moderate saddleback.” It would not be far-fetched that Fern was moved by whalers in the 1800’s as they hopped around the archipelago or an early scientific expedition.
Those tortoises, with the shell form known as “saddleback,” generally inhabit the lower, hotter, dryer islands, where food is limited and may involve reaching for high-growing leaves and cactus pads. By contrast, the dome-shelled tortoises are able to grow to enormous size as they graze upon the lush grasslands growing on the rich, volcanic soils of the moist uplands of the larger islands.
Saddlebacks are found on Duncan (Pinzon), Hood (Española) and formerly on Abingdon (Pinta) and Fernandina (Narborough) islands. The tortoises of Santiago are semi-saddlebacked and are as large as the giant domed tortoises of Santa Cruz and Volcán Alcedo. Smaller semi-saddled animals occur on San Cristobal and used to exist on Floreana.
To end the debate, geneticsts at Yale University, led by Gisella Caccone, are already underway to analyze the blood and tissue samples taken by Galante, Tapia and Malaga.
This is the sad reality for understanding the evolutionary history of these phenomenal reptiles. Human activity over the past three centuries decimated Galapagos giant tortoises, with several species already casualties from the lack of human foresight. The tortoises were exploited on a genocidal scale throughout the archipelago by sailors and whalers during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the settlers and ranchers in the early 20th century continued the slaughter. The Floreana subspecies was extinguished by 1840, and the very distinctive pinta tortoise (Geochelone nigra abingdoni) is famously extinct. The populations of Rabida, Fernandina and Santa Fe do not exist today, and although isolated tortoises have been found on these islands, these could have been introduced and there may never have been actual populations on any of the three.
The Search for Others
Forrest and his team provided hope and inspiration to a generation of future herpetologists, proving that no matter how remote the chance, taking risks in the spirit of conservation can pay huge rewards. It also changed the landscape of conservation in the Galapagos.
In celebration of this historic discovery, the Turtle Conservancy and Global Wildlife Conservation are pledging a $100,000 match to further conservation efforts of the Fernandina giant tortoise in partnership with Forrest Galante and Animal Planet. To have your donation matched, go to www.globalwildlife.org.
Whether or not Fern turns out to be the lost Fernandina giant tortoise may not change the significance of the finding.
“I sincerely believe that our show is inspiring a future generation of conservationists,” Galante articulated. “I get messages from parents about their kids or college kids telling me that their major has been changed to be wildlife conservation or biology. Because of that, I think that we’re making a big long-term difference.”
Forrest and the Turtle Conservancy plan to forge ahead with future expeditions to find more tortoises on Fernandina Island. This time, I will make sure I don’t leave empty handed, as Forrest proved to me I need to have a little more faith.
“Check out the show this summer and I can tell you, the Fernandina tortoise is an incredible discovery,” Galante said with a smirk. “I’ve got at least two others [discoveries] coming out, but those others remain a secret.”
Dr. James Liu is a turtle biologist and veterinarian with the Turtle Conservancy.