A long-standing symbol of the diverse Galapagos Island ecosystem that Charles Darwin based his theory of evolution on has died. Lonesome George was the last of the Pinta Island giant tortoises. And with his death an entire subspecies of giant tortoises is now believed to be extinct.
He lived out the final years of his life at the Charles Darwin Research Center in the Galapagos Islands where over 180,000 visitors each year flocked to see what Darwin saw.
He lived with a female tortoise from a different tortoise subspecies for 15 years but all attempts to continue George’s genetic line failed. Though he died at 100 that’s not particularly old for this species of tortoise. He was expected to live another 100 years.
His keeper says that last time he saw the giant George he was crawling on some stones. Then Fausto Llerena had to leave. When he returned he says Lonesome George was dead. When he saw the deceased tortoise Llerena says, “I tell you, I froze completely.”
Yale University tortoise expert Gisella Caccone says, “It’s devastating to me.” The researcher has been working with Galapagos giant tortoises for 20 years and had quite a bond with Lonesome George.
No one knows what killed Lonesome George but the national park will conduct a autopsy. After the investigation is complete Edwin Naula, the director of the Galapagos National Park says that the tortoise will be embalmed and put on display so visitors can still come to see Lonesome George.
With the death of Lonesome George there are just 10 of 14 remaining subspecies of giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. Thanks to conservation efforts since the 1970s the number of tortoises has jumped from a few thousand to over 20,000. But the whole species is still listed as vulnerable, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Although Lonesome George was the last purebred Pinta Island tortoise there are a number of hybrids roaming the islands. After whalers and pirates dumped tortoises on a nearby island several subspecies began interbreeding with the Pintas.
Last year Dr. Caccone and Kevin White from University of Chicago began sequencing Lonesome George’s genome. The research which should be a step closer in the next few months will help identify tortoises that carry Pinta genes. That could lead to a new breeding program to reestablish the population of Pinta Island giant tortoises. But Caccone says it will take decades to do that and she doesn’t expect to live long enough to see that program succeed.
The giant tortoise symbolizes the unusual flora and fauna of the region that helped inspire Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolution. Lonesome George has been a living symbol of that history for 40 years since he was first discovered in 1972. Besides the Galapagos finches, Darwin About noted the subtle differences among island tortoises. With the loss of Lonesome George, four of those subspecies have now died out.