Last week was a big one for two animals thought to be extinct. A tortoise found on Fernandina Island in the Galapagos was confirmed to genetically match a type not seen since 1906. And in Argentina, a giant river otter popped its head out of the Bermejo River long enough for a conservationist to snap its portrait.
The mystery tortoise — a female nicknamed Fernanda — lumbered into the spotlight in 2019 when scientists were on an expedition in the Galapagos Islands. An active volcano dominates Fernandina Island, a possible reason for the believed extinction of the Fernandina Giant Tortoise. Scientists had only collected one such tortoise before, a male during a 1905-1906 California Academy of Sciences expedition, so the 2019 expedition has been crossing its collective fingers that they’d found a living Fernandina Giant Tortoise. It took a while to verify. Geneticists at Yale compared a blood sample with the long-dead carcass of the 1906 tortoise and confirmed the match.
Now that Fernanda’s identity has been confirmed, researchers will embark on a high-stakes adventure, which they hope will end in romance. They will brave Fernandina’s erupting landscape to search for a mate for Fernanda. Around the world, tortoise-lovers are hoping that Fernanda avoids the tragedy of Lonesome George, the Pinta Island tortoise who died single in 2012, the last of his kind.
If researchers find an eligible bachelor for Fernanda, they’ll capture him in a low-speed chase and relocate him to a honeymoon suite in the Galapagos National Park’s Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Santa Cruz Island. In the happiest of endings, the lovers will produce little shelled bundles of joy who will be released into their volcanic homeland.
Meanwhile, in Argentina, Sebastián Di Martino, director of conservation at Fundación Rewilding Argentina, glimpsed a giant river otter not seen in the Argentinian wild since the 1980s. Di Martino was kayaking in Chaco province in northeast Argentina when he saw the otter. “It reared up, so its white chest was visible, which I recognized as the giant river otter [Pteronura brasiliensis],” he said, as reported by The Guardian. “At this point, your legs go weak and your heart starts beating faster.”
Scientists have a couple of theories about the otter’s mysterious reappearance. “The closest known populations of giant otter, which is endangered globally, are in the Paraguayan Pantanal, which could connect with this river from a distance of over 1,000km. That’s the simplest explanation,” Di Martino said. “The other possibility is that there’s a remnant population of the species in Argentina that’s gone undetected. These animals live in family groups, and this was a solitary individual, which we think came from a group.”
The giant river otters, which can measure almost six feet long, are top predators who keep the aquatic ecosystem in balance. Rewilding Argentina has been working to reintroduce the otters into wetland areas since 2018.
Image via Galapagos Conservancy