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By Chris Parsons, posted on July 2, 2012

Lonesome George, Lonesome No More

Last month (June 24) saw the sad death of George, the last of his kind. So called "lonesome George" the last giant tortoise from the island of Pinta in the Galapagos Islands, died, signifying the extinction of his sub-species (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii). The Pinta tortoises were thought to have gone extinct in the early part of the 20th Century, but in 1971 a lone male, George, was found wondering on the island, and immediately taken into captivity with the idea of starting a captive breeding program. 

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Lonesome George (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni). From Wikipedia Commons by Mike Weston
 
I take a class of students to the Galapagos Islands every year and, one of the highlights of the trip has been to see George in his enclosure at the Charles Darwin Research Center. He was originally accompanied by two female tortoises, from Isabela island, a sub-species (C. nigra becki) deemed to be the closest to George's sub-species morphologically, and they had hoped that this might stimulate George to breed and possibly produce closely related hybrids. This was, however, unsuccessful. Although the females produced three batches of eggs, none of them were viable. Plus, George just didn't seem particularly interested in mating.
 
When I was there last, scientists at the Station had determined that the tortoise sub-species from Espanola island were in fact more closely-related genetically to George (C. n. hoodensis), and there was talk about starting attempts to breed again. So two new females from Espanola were placed in George’s enclosure in 2011. But alas it was not to be. 
 
Lonesome George. Photo courtesy of Chris Parsons

It was terribly sad to watch George slowly plodding around his enclosure. Occasionally he would look at you with his sad, and strangely familiar face (I later discovered that the face of ET was based on giant tortoises like George), and ignore the female tortoises in the enclosure with him, oblivious to the hopes of conservationists that he would take an interest in them and somehow save some of his unique genetic material by breeding. Personally he always reminded me of Walter Matthau … in a shell.
 
The giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands were probably never in terribly high numbers. But in 18th and 19th Centuries the islands became a popular location for whaling expeditions (for sperm whales) and the tortoises were captured as a source of fresh meat - the tortoises could be lashed on deck and could survive without food for several months, and so could provide whaling vessels with fresh meat (the sailors never ate the meat of the whales they killed, surprisingly). Sperm whale oil was extremely valuable, at times literally worth its weight in gold, and such lucrative wares attracted pirates and privateers (government sanctioned pirates) who also captured the tortoises. Later the islands started to be colonized and in addition to being a source of food, the animals the colonists brought with them competed with the tortoises for resources. So throughout the islands tortoises were depleted, with the Pinta tortoises being hunted to near extinction.
 
Lonesome George. Photo courtesy of Chris Parsons

George was over 100 years-old at his death. One hundred years ago, the Titanic sunk, just to put that age in perspective. I was told at the Charles Darwin Research Center that he might have even been 170 years old. If so, he was born in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, grew up in the early Victorian era, as the industrial revolution was beginning to take off. He would have seen sailing ships cruising around his island turn into iron steam ships, to the numerous high speed ferries, fishing boats and tour boats that ply the waters of the Galapagos today. Much of that life was as the last of his kind.
Author photo

Author Bio

Chris Parsons, Ph.D., is president of the Marine Section of SCB. He is an associate professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy, George Mason University in Virginia, USA and a research associate at the University Marine Biological Station, Millport, Scotland and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia. Chris has been a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission since 1999. He is currently involved in research projects on coastal dolphin populations in the Caribbean.