In 2019, evolutionists were surprised to find a tiny female tortoise living on the most remote island of the Galapagos.Scientists have only seen one other turtle of this species, once in 1906, on Fernandina, an isolated island at the western end of the famous archipelago.
Scientists have named the 50-year-old tortoise Fernanda, which is closely related to a 20th-century male specimen now housed at the California Academy of Sciences, according to Yale University research published in the journal Communications Biology. This discovery doubles the number of known members of Chelonoidis phantasticus.
However, this finding raises several new questions. “There is a lot of genetic similarity between the two animals, but we don’t know the process that explains how this happens. It also shows the importance of using museum collections to understand the past.”
According to the non-profit Galapagos Conservation Society, there are thought to be 15 different species of giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands.
The new findings clearly show that the two giant tortoises found on Fernandina Island are their own lineage and are more closely related to each other than to any other species of Galapagos giant tortoise. The population of these giant tortoises has declined by 85 to 90 percent since the early 19th century, mainly due to the arrival of whalers and pirates, who killed giant tortoises for food.
Cacon said: “Finding a living specimen is promising, but also opens up new questions, as many mysteries remain. Could more tortoises be held in captivity on Fernandina Island to start a breeding program? How did the tortoises colonize Fernandina, and what? Is their evolutionary relationship with other Galapagos giant tortoises?”
Fernandina’s sea turtles are thought to have been driven to extinction by volcanic eruptions on the island, including about 25 times in the past two centuries. Scientists hypothesize that vegetation areas have been reduced due to lava flows.
Galapagos National Park and the Galapagos Conservation Society plan to find Fernanda’s closest relatives on Fernandina Island in hopes of saving the species. The presence of other turtle feces and footprints suggests more animals may be found on the island, Cacon said. If more turtles are found, conservationists can start a captive breeding program, she said.
Deciphering the evolutionary relationship between the two Fernandina tortoises is difficult. First, they look very different. Male specimens have a large, prominent shell similar to saddleback turtles, while Fernanda’s shell is smaller and smoother. Cacon believes this difference in shape is due to stunted growth due to limited food choices.
Also, although the two animals’ genomes are very similar, the researchers found differences within the mitochondria, the energy-producing parts of cells that are passed down through the mother. Because the mitochondrial DNA is inherited from the mother, Cacon said Fernanda is likely a hybrid species, made up of a male Chelonoides fantasticis and a female C. Originated from Nigra.
Among the Galapagos Islands, including Isabela, C. Different turtles such as nigra are known to have been displaced by humans, where several local species such as C. becki and the extinct C. A c. Nigra woman also finds Fernandina and a c. phantuscus also mated with the male, passing her mitochondrial DNA to all her offspring.
Cacon believes the male, now housed in a California museum, may be a true representative of the original species. But to solve this new puzzle, they said, they need to find more turtles from Fernandina.
These and other questions will be studied by evolutionary biologists for years to come. “These sea turtles are the largest cold-blooded terrestrial herbivores on Earth and have a very important ecological role,” Cacon said. “Therefore, it is important to protect them, not only because of their iconic status, but because they are an important medium for the sustainability of the Galapagos ecosystem.”
“There’s still so much we don’t know, and what we’ve learned will guide us in helping to conserve them and working with them to protect fragile and unique places on Earth.”
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