Photo: Rodrigo Buendia Agence France-Presse
The specimen was discovered last Sunday on the island of Fernandina during an expedition funded by Animal Planet.
Her species was officially extinct since a century. But its shell has suddenly reappeared in the landscape, a volcanic island of the Galapagos. Encouraged by this discovery, the scientists want to go in search of other specimens of this turtle giant of the archipelago of ecuador.
This female Chelonoidis phantasticus ” exceeds 100 years, it is a turtle, very old “, said to AFP, Washington Tapia, director of the GTRI, the program of recovery of the giant tortoises of the us non-governmental organization Galapagos Conservancy.
This specimen was discovered last Sunday on the island of Fernandina during an expedition led by Dr. Tapia and funded by Animal Planet. The turtle, which weighs 20 kg, was concealed in the vegetation that grows between the petrified lava flows of the volcano La Cumbre, one of the most active of the planet.
Only a DNA analysis will confirm that it is the species endemic to this island, and that experts believed extinct. But his shell in the shape of a saddle-differentiates it from other giant tortoises of the archipelago, and it corresponds to the description of the Chelonoidis phantasticus.
Scientists hope that it does not suffer the same fate as George, the lonely, the emblem of the archipelago. Latest copy of the Chelonoidis abigondi, he died without offspring in 2012, after agreeing to mate with females of similar species.
A work of detectives
According to Danny Rueda, director of ecosystems of the Galapagos national Park (PNG), the discovery of a tortoise Chelonoidis phantasticus involves a ” commitment and urgency to organize an expedition to Fernandina in the hope of finding another specimen, preferably male in order to be able to start a breeding program.
The last Chelonoidis phantasticus had been recorded in Galapagos in 1906. This specimen is now a museum belonging to the California Academy of sciences.
There is a report dating from 1964 in which a researcher claims to have spotted droppings turtles look very old on the same island. Then, 42 years passed before the employees of the PNG spot a cactus apparently bitten by a turtle, according to Mr. Tapia.
But it is the eye notified a park ranger, Jeffeys Malaga, with which Mr. Tapia has worked for twenty years, that convinced the scientist to undertake research on the island of Fernandina. In 2014, the guard “was found in feces and footprints of a turtle,” explained the director of GTRI.
The mission has borne fruit : a female Chelonoidis phantasticus with in addition a special feature. “It is small in comparison to other females of species type saddle horse. The curve of the carapace is 59.3 cm, which is small for an adult female, ” he said.
According to Mr. Rueda, this peculiarity may be due to an adaptation to the place where she has lived during the past century. “The turtle has been isolated in a relatively small space with enough food, but there is not enough vegetation to enable it to grow more as other species,” he explained.
Walk on the petrified lava
The island, of 638 km2 in area, is uninhabited. Its hard ground, formed of petrified lava, makes walking difficult.
“Fernandina is not an island easy […] it is the most active volcano and with a large amount of lava flow, almost impassable, and this involves a lot of preparation as well as costs of [exploration] very high,” said Mr. Tapia.
It shows, however, optimistic about a second expedition to look for other copies, because they found ” evidence that there are probably a number of individuals “.
The giant tortoises are arrivals there are three to four million years ago in the volcanic archipelago of the Galapagos islands, located 1000 km off the coast of Ecuador and of which the English naturalist Charles Darwin used to develop his theory on the evolution of species.
It seems that they were then dispersed to the islands by sea currents, and thus have developed 15 different species, two of which are now extinct.
In anticipation of a new expedition to Fernandina, and the possible discovery of a male, the Chelonoidis phantasticus has been transferred to the breeding Centre of giant tortoises on Santa Cruz island.
“I am convinced that we will find other individuals and that this species will have the opportunity to re-establish a captive breeding programme,” assured Washington Tapia.