Lonesome George died.

Lonesome George (image via ABC news)

News outlets are reporting on the death of Lonesome George. He was the last known individual of the Pinta Island subspecies of Galapagos tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abigdonii). While there are still several other extant subspecies from different islands, the abingdonii subspecies is now no more. The Galapagos tortoises were made famous by Charles Darwin, along with the Galapagos finches, because each island has tortoises (and finches) with distinctly different sets of features. These are excellent examples of adaptation, and by extrapolation, evolution. Darwin also found that they were quite tasty, and the several that rattled around the decks of The Beagle to be taken back to London as biological specimens never made it home alive.

George was discovered in the 1970s as the last remaining tortoise on Pinta Island, and relocated to a breeding facility in Ecuador. But it was always going to be an uphill battle because he didn’t have a mate of the same subspecies. He did not produce any viable offspring on the couple of occasions that his mates laid eggs. The females who were potential mates were different subspecies of Galapagos tortoise, so maybe they were just too different at a genetic level.

Galapagos tortoises of all subspecies have been in decline as the result of prolific hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Apart from being easy to catch, their longevity meant that they did not breed quickly so could not replace their populations at a fast enough rate to cope with the reduction caused by hunting. They have also been under threat by the destruction of their habitat by introduced species.


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