Tortoises are one of the oldest animals in our planet. They have inhabited our world for thousands of years, and, with their slow but firm gait, slowly but surely, they have got on planet Earth, our big home. Because they are thousand-year-old beings, they represent wisdom and experience in many cultures. They live both in water and on land and some land tortoise species can live up to two hundred years. And, maybe, what they are trying to teach the newer species in this world is that we can get anywhere we want, just little by little, one day at a time.
That could have probably been Lonesome George’s legacy. Lonesome George was a male Pinta Island giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) in Galapagos islands in Ecuador. He became an icon of that country and, especially, of Galapagos National Park because he was the last individual of his subspecies. The number of these ancient chelonians started to decrease in number since colonial times with the introduction of goats and pigs in their ecosystem, on the one hand, and the tortoise hunting of whalers, fishermen and pirates, upon the other. Goats and pigs ate the plants tortoises eat and hunters used them as long-lasting food in their voyages.
Lonesome George was discovered back in 1971. Being totally and completely alone, not even with a female to mate and produce offspring, conservationists decided to relocate him to Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island to protect him. The station is named after the famous naturalist who postulated the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection, as a result of his research in Galapagos.
Once in Santa Cruz, they encouraged the reptile to mate with females of two genetically similar subspecies: Wolf Volcano giant tortoise (Chelonoidis becki) and Española giant tortoise (Chelonoidis hoodensis), the latter being even more genetically similar than the former. In any case, it took George some fifteen years to get closer to them because he was getting used to his new home. Some years later, he managed to do it, but unfortunately, although eggs were produced, none of them hatched. His subspecies became, thus, extinct and his genes could not be retained.
And on June, 24 2012 Lonesome George passed away. Everyone grieved for him: from Fausto Llerena, his caretaker, to Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador. His subspecies was added to the long and sad list of extinct animals. Some of his cells were cryopreserved with the hope of a possible future cloning, but the feasibility of such project is still incipient. However, George was embalmed so that he can be exhibited and future generations can get to know him.
At present, only eleven giant tortoise subspecies remain. In 1835, Charles Darwin had found fourteen of them in his voyage to Galapagos, an ideal place for his scientific research due to its rich biodiversity of flora and fauna. But maybe, we are jumping into wrong conclusions. Maybe this is not how the story ends. If tortoises take their time, why don’t we do the same? What is the rush?
According to recent research, hybrid turtles descending from Pinta island tortoises and tortoises from other islands as well were found near Wolf volcano on Isabela island. There are nine females, three males and five young who carry some of George’s genetic information. So this is not a lost case. Biologists working there believe that Pinta island can be repopulated with these animals, and what is even more, they believe that purebred individuals can be found due to the number of young tortoises they discovered and the longevity of these animals. So this is not the end of this story: it is just the beginning of a new page, a new chapter. Many times, we need to wait for the answers to come. It is the art of waiting. And, as Darwin explained: “to kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact.”