A recent discovery in the Galapagos Islands has sent ripples through the international scientific community when a species of Galapagos giant Tortoises was rediscovered on Fernandina when they were long thought to be extinct.
The Fernandina tortoise was last seen in 1906 until a team of scientists working with the Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative found a female while surveying the island. The restoration project is an ongoing initiative that has successfully reintroduced species to islands where the native populations have died out, including Santa Fe Island. Keep reading for some fun facts about Galapagos giant tortoises.
At the start of the wet season in December, adult males and females start a trek from the highlands of the islands to the coastal regions. The trip can take as long as three weeks, covering a distance of under 4 miles on Santa Cruz island and traveling about 1000 feet each day. The annual trek is in search of food that is in ample supply on the coast during the rainy season and also to find suitable spots to lay their eggs. Once the rains stop and the vegetation dries up, the slow and steady journey begins back to the highlands.
When Darwin visited the islands there were 15 species of tortoises with different characteristics based on the food supply. Today with news of the latest find, the number of surviving species has grown. There are two main types of tortoise in the islands-domed and saddle-backed. Domed shell tortoises live in areas where food is close to the ground-such as low-lying cactus plants. Saddle-backed tortoise has a longer neck to reach food sources higher up. On Isabela Island, there are five different kinds of tortoises, separated by the island’s volcanoes over millions of years.
Galapagos Giant Tortoises have an incredible life span. The female found on Fernandina is thought to be over a century old and the oldest recorded tortoise was 152 years old. The reptiles reach maturity after 20 to 25 years and keep growing until they are 50 years old.
The size of giant tortoises, some reach five feet and can weigh 500 pounds, and their ability to store food and water gives them an edge during years when rainfall wains and food is in short supply. This characteristic has also been a pitfall. Whalers used the gentle giants as a food source as they could survive in ship’s holds without needing food.
Many on a Galapagos vacation trip visit tortoise reserves and breeding centers on Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabela islands. The Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz is the main center for breeding tortoises, and many of those raised here have been released on uninhabited islands where the native tortoises became extinct. Protecting young tortoises in safe habitats shields them from predators, which include the Galapagos Hawk. The conservation efforts and programs of the Galapagos giant Tortoises rediscovered on Fernandina just begins.
Spanish sailors on some of the earliest Galapagos cruises named the islands Galapagos-after the Spanish word for tortoise.
Joining Darwin and the crew of the Beagle after their Galapagos land tours of the islands was a young tortoise named James. Darwin’s pet eventually found its way to the Natural History Museum in London, where a collections manager rediscovered it in storage after 170 years of being lost.