The Curiously Sad Case of Lonesome George

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by H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

On Sunday, 24 June 2012, the world witnessed an incredibly rare event: the notable passing of the last individual of a race of living things with a lineage 3.5 billion years old. He was “Lonesome George,” the last survivor of a subspecies of giant tortoise native to the Galápagos Islands called the Pinta Island Tortoise. When he was discovered 40 years ago by park authorities, he was rushed from his goat-ridden island to another location in the archipelago where scientists could protect him and even encourage him to mate with females from closely aligned subspecies. Not only would he refuse to procreate, but he would often lumber off into the surrounding shrubbery to hide his huge, gentle ET-like head from all the attention. When he died on Sunday, probably from a heart attack, the 200-pound, five-foot-long reptile was around 100 years old. Born about the time of the sinking of the RMS Titanic and the Piltdown hoax, Lonesome George had no known human witnesses to his birth. When he died, however, TIME, ABC, CNN, and numerous other international newsfeeds took note.

I was fortunate enough to have met Lonesome George not once, but during each of my five research expeditions to the Galápagos Islands. The first trip took place in 1985 when the islands were sparsely inhabited, and the streets of Puerto Ayora (the home of the Charles Darwin Research Station and the Galápagos National Park offices) were dusty, unpaved avenues through which cattle were sometimes driven. My last trip took place in 2003 where I found those same streets covered and lined with tzotchke tourist shops and cyber-cafés with scratchy links to the outside world. Each time I approached Lonesome George, he clambered into the leafy vegetation of his enclosure – with a seemingly nimble intent NOT to engage. Tortoise, human, no matter – his riposte appeared less about reclusive behavior and more about a lingering memory.

What happened to his brothers and sisters? With clutch sizes up to 16 eggs (and one to four clutches per season), the giant tortoises of the Galápagos Islands were originally divided into 15 subspecies. Now, thanks to buccaneers, whalers, and fishermen over hundreds of years (yes, human impacts … again), only 11 subspecies still exist. Oops – make that 10. As these waves of human opportunists arrived, they hunted tortoises as a source of meat; they also deposited – sometimes intentionally, sometimes inadvertently – their pigs, goats, burros, cattle, rats, and even house cats that then ravaged native species with few or no defenses against these exotic invaders.

In the days of buccaneers and pirates, Isla Pinta, the home of Lonesome George and his subspecies in the northern part of the archipelago, was a popular stop. These sea-faring folks would gather up as many of these obliging reptiles as their ships could hold, stacking them one on top of the other for months at a time like gigantic, writhing hamburger patties until ready to devour them. The female tortoises were often the first to be collected because they were smaller, easier to handle, and simpler to stockpile than the giant males. As the numbers of tortoises quickly diminished, the buccaneers and pirates began to use the island to restock their fresh meat supplies while at sea. Since the tortoises were no longer available, they released goats into their makeshift Pacific pantry that then flourished and stripped away the island’s vegetation. Imagine the surprise of authorities from the Galápagos National Park when, in 1971, they eradicated the goat population from Isla Pinta and then found Lonesome George: a solo survivor of some of humankind’s conceit and callous disregard for the natural world.

Did Lonesome George somehow “remember” all this ugly history only to shuffle in his enclosure for 40 years as a sentinel against our naiveté? Seeing his brothers and sisters trampled, eaten, and carried off, did Lonesome George refuse us forgiveness like a priest withholding absolution from an unrepentant sinner?

We scientists estimate 30 million species on Earth (though that number ranges from 10 million to over 400 million in the scientific literature): 30 million different kinds of bacteria, algae and protozoans, fungi, plants, and animals on Earth interwoven and co-evolving on a watery planet. Pulitzer-prize-winning scientist E.O. Wilson and others estimate that the background rate of extinction (i.e., minus human influence) is one to three species per year. In the 1970’s, about the time of Lonesome George’s discovery, that rate accelerated to one species per day. In the 1980’s, the extinction rate climbed to one species per hour. Now, in these first decades of the 21st century, we may see 100 species or more per day fall prey to human ignorance and appetite. With each species as a vital, ancient thread tied to all other species, the implications of mass extinction for the tapestry of life upon which we depend are absolutelye horrifying.

Lonesome George is gone as are our hopes to preserve his venerable lineage of giants. With the undeniable specters of mass extinction, climate change, and human overpopulation now knocking at the door, will we take positive, unequivocal action to conserve Earth’s natural resources sustainably? Or will we lumber off in our own little enclosures, hiding our heads in the jungles of our own creation and pretending that all’s well on a planet wracked by our selfish ways?