Lonesome George is Dead! Long live Diego!
Photo by author, circa 1997
Less than two weeks ago, the ecological world mourned the passing of the last surviving member of the (Pinta) Giant Tortoises, or the Galapagos: 100-year-old Lonesome George.
George departed this world without leaving any offspring behind to carry on his lineage.
George was a descendant of the Pinta Island Giant Tortoises and both his rarity and his inability to deliver any offspring — despite valiant efforts by the government of Ecuador and, at times, by George himself — made him an icon, perhaps a martyr, in the eyes of those concerned about the disappearance of species.
But not all is deemed lost in the case of Lonesome George.
Lonesome George will be embalmed and put on display on Galápagos’ Santa Cruz island and, I assume, his DNA and “genetic material” will be preserved, just in case.
Genetic scientists and conservationists are already investigating ways to somehow recover and continue at least some of Lonesome George’s lineage.
For George, however, fame could be very fleeting and fans might be very fickle.
Apparently another centenarian has been found who will fill George’s shell quite well. “He’s Diego, a prolific, bossy, macho reptile.”
According to the Washington Post, Diego was plucked from Galápagos’ arid, inhospitable, yet beautiful Española Island by expeditioners sometime between 1900 and 1930 and wound up in the San Diego Zoo in California. When Diego was returned to the Galápagos in 1975 there were only two male and 12 female known living members of his species.
While George could not prevent the disappearance of his own species, Diego was extremely busy bringing back from extinction his species, Chelonoidis hoodensis (Some consider it a subspecies), siring hundreds of offspring.
A U.S.-based herpetologist for the Galapagos Conservancy, Linda Cayot, says Diego is the most sexually active of the bunch because he’s the biggest and the oldest of the males.
“In tortoises, the biggest dominates. It’s not that the others aren’t active. It’s just that he’s dominant,” she says.
[Washington] Tapia [head of the Galapagos National Park conservation program] said it is impossible to know Diego’s age, but he is well over 100. He estimates Diego is the father of 40 to 45 percent of the 1,781 tortoises born in the breeding program and placed on Espanola island.
Good for Diego. But while many will say “George is Dead! Long live Diego!” I do believe that Lonesome George will always have a special place in the minds and hearts of ecologists and conservationists and that it will take more than just macho tortoise reproductive power to fill George’s shell.
Washington Post’s “Galapagos: Goodbye Lonesome George, Hello Diego!” video: