Lament for Lonesome George, but Hope for his ‘Lineage’
With all the breaking news in the last few days, many may not have noticed that George passed away on June 24 — Lonesome George, that is.
Some think that George was around 100 years old, not so old when one considers that some of his ancestors have lived to the ripe old age of 200.
I visited George about 15 years ago in my native Ecuador. He must have been around 85 then — a young “stud,” relatively and figuratively speaking.
And, yes, everyone around him was hoping that he would indeed be a stud. To that end, they introduced him in 1992 to two closely related (species-wise) younger females, hoping that George would live up to his reputation and, more important, to his responsibility of ensuring that his species (actually his subspecies) would continue to exist.
But alas, Lonesome George passed away last Sunday without fulfilling that solemn duty, although he did give it the good old (reptilian) college try, twice, but both times the eggs proved to be infertile.
You see, George was the last surviving member of the Giant Tortoises, or the Galapagos, residing at the Charles Darwin Research Station (CDRS) on one of the islands making up the enchanted Ecuadorean Galapagos Islands — they are called El Archipiélago Encantado. He was found in 1972 in La Pinta, one of the smallest islands in the Galapagos and original home of the giant tortoise. George soon became the symbol of the islands and their unique eco system, attracting thousands of visitors each year.
With no offspring and no known individuals from his subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) left, Lonesome George became known as “the rarest animal on earth. At one time the government of Ecuador offered a $10,000 reward for anyone finding a genetic match in order to continue George’s “lineage.”
However, years — centuries — of hunting, fishing and slaughtering of these giant tortoises by pirates, sailors and fishermen for their meat resulted in the reward going unclaimed and forced the CDRS to settle for the two closely related females that kept George connubial company for the past 20 years, obviously to no avail.
When Charles Darwin came to the Galapagos archipelago aboard the Beagle in 1835, George was probably just a gleam in his father’s eye, but along with the famous finches and other animals, it were his parents and grand-parents who were among the species that gave Darwin the first inklings towards his theory of evolution by natural selection.
An open letter published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says, “More than just a symbol for the Galapagos, Lonesome George was a symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited.”
But not all may be lost forever in the case of Lonesome George.
In “Lonesome George: Does the death of a subspecies matter?” we learn how a series of genetic discoveries in recent years at Volcano Wolf on Isabela, one of the Galapagos Islands, offers some consolation:
Scientists from Yale found a first generation hybrid of the Pinta giant tortoises and Isabela tortoises, meaning that 50% of Lonesome George’s genetic material is still around, along with other strands of the genetic ancestry that Galapagos giant tortoises share.
Dr Peter Paul Van Dijk, co-chair of the IUCN specialist group for tortoises and freshwater turtles, says “Even though Lonesome George and his lineage are gone there are still a couple of animals up on Volcano Wolf where they carry essentially the genetic make-up that is related to George, so some of the relatives are still around.”
Read what this means for opening up “potential recovery for some of these lineages deemed extinct” in general and for Lonesome George’s species (or sub-species) in particular, here.
Lonesome George will be embalmed and put on display on Galapagos’ Santa Cruz island, kept for future generations to see, according to the BBC.
Environment Minister Marcela Aguinaga said an autopsy had found that Lonesome George had died of old age.
Photo by author, circa 1997