Galápagos Conservancy

The Enigma Of Fernanda – A Lone Survivor In Galápagos

The Enigma Of Fernanda - A Lone Survivor In Galápagos
Fernanda, the last known Fernandina giant tortoise ©Lucas Bustamante

The discovery of Fernanda, a lone female Galápagos giant tortoise and last known member of the Fernandina species (Chelonoidis phantasticus) — previously thought extinct for over a century — signaled a conservation breakthrough in rediscovering a lost species. However, it now increasingly highlights the grim reality of species extinction. Extensive expeditions to Fernandina Island by teams from Galápagos Conservancy and the Galápagos National Park Directorate to find another member of her species have, despite enormous efforts, so far been fruitless. We are increasingly moving toward the conclusion that Fernanda is an endling of her species.

A Remarkable Discovery

In 2019, scientists from Galápagos Conservancy, the Galápagos National Park Directorate, and other organizations discovered Fernanda on Fernandina Island. Initial excitement was tempered with caution, as genetic tests were needed to confirm her species.

Blood samples were sent to Yale University, where geneticists led by Dr. Gisella Caccone performed an analysis. The results confirmed that Fernanda was indeed a Fernandina giant tortoise, with DNA that best matched that of the only other tortoise ever found on Fernandina Island — one killed by scientist collectors in 1906 and kept in a museum since. This confirmation triggered an immediate and large-scale response to find a male mate for Fernanda to revive the nearly extinct species.

The Quest for Survival

Energized by the scientific confirmation, the Galápagos National Park Directorate and Galápagos Conservancy organized ambitious expeditions to search for additional tortoises on Fernandina. Despite the island’s challenging landscape — dominated by an active volcano — scientists, rangers, and volunteers combed through the area. Aerial support was even mobilized to explore inaccessible terrains. However, no other tortoises have been located.

Conservation Dilemma

While Fernanda’s discovery provided hope, the inability to find another of her species illuminates the tragic circumstances facing many endangered animals. Currently housed in the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center in Santa Cruz, Fernanda serves as both a symbol of hope and a solitary reminder of the urgency needed in conservation efforts.

As the former Director of the Galápagos National Park, Danny Rueda Córdova, put it, “We desperately want to avoid the fate of Lonesome George,” referring to the last Pinta giant tortoise who died in 2012 without leaving any offspring. Time is ticking to find a companion for Fernanda to prevent another heartrending loss.

The Enigma Of Fernanda - A Lone Survivor In Galápagos
Galápagos giant tortoise ©Joshua Vela

The enigmatic case of Fernanda, the assumed lone surviving Fernandina giant tortoise, encapsulates the complex challenges and moral imperatives of modern conservation. Her survival against all odds provides a glimmer of hope, but the failure to find any other members of her species underscores the urgency and complexity of the work that still lies ahead. Fernanda’s existence remains a poignant reminder of both nature’s resilience and fragility, while fueling continued efforts to save not only her species but the broader ecosystem to which she belongs.