The Ballad of Lonesome George, The Galapagos' Most Famous Tortoise


Photo credit: Wikipedia/Creative Commons

Lonesome George is quite a character. He's a Pinta Island tortoise, and, as Brian noted when he visited a few years ago, he's the last of this breed. Yep, that means when he's gone, that's it -- his species will be lost to the world forever.

That doesn't mean that all hope for him or his kind is lost, though.


George wasn't feeling very frisky, or photogenic, on the day of our visit, so here's his backside. Photo credit: Collin Dunn

He has a pretty swanky setup, as far as land tortoises in Galapagos National Park go. While the others are open to park visitors, subjects of hundreds or thousands of photos and interruptions a day, Lonesome George has his own pen, but he doesn't live alone. Two females, of a different but similar species, live in there with them, and the hope is that George and his special lady friends might produce some fertile eggs that would last to term, so George's bloodline will live on.

One of the female tortoises produced some fertile eggs a few years ago, but they didn't make it. George still has some time to make it happen -- he's estimated to be somewhere between 60 and 90 years old (there are no definitive ways to determine the age of live tortoises unless they've been tracked from birth), which is about half of the estimated tortoise lifespan.

Even if he does manage to help create some offspring, though they'll be direct descendants of his, it would create something of a hybrid. Some people think that's pretty sad, that the species stops with Lonesome George, which is true -- it is sad that George is the last of his kind -- and it's not like they aren't trying to make it happen. There's currently a $10,000 reward offered by the Station to find a female Pinta Island tortoise. But if that never happens, there are a few silver linings to George's story.


George, bottom right, with his two female pen mates. Photo credit: Collin Dunn

Scientists have found his bloodline -- his turtle cousins, essentially -- while doing research on turtles that came to the Galapagos after going down with a ship that sank in the islands. Some of his ancestors floated to the island of Isabella, and there are theories that some of the turtles rode the currents around to other islands. What does that mean? His bloodline could live on, elsewhere in the islands, without anyone knowing (yet). Just because George won't live forever doesn't mean a part of his turtle heritage won't, and isn't that how evolution works?

In that way, George is sort of helping to lead the redefinition of what "species" means for us on this planet. We can't keep everything alive all of the time, but maybe that's okay, if his ancestors spread their bloodline out, far and wide (relative to the islands, at least) so that the best of their species had a chance to get a foothold and compete in the game of survival of the fittest. Just because George will die someday doesn't mean that his turtle family has lost the game.

There are 13 species of finches on the islands. They've been made famous as an example of evolution in action, but there's something else that not everybody knows about them. Sometimes, the evolutionary changes in them are so minute that they can't even tell each other apart, from one species to another, and that cross-breeding is part of the reason for the great diversity among the birds, and part of nature's wonderful mystery. Does nature want to keep them apart? Does nature want George to produce offspring so his branch of the tortoise family tree doesn't stop with him? Nobody can really tell for sure, but it's truly fascinating that we get to watch and learn from whatever will come.

24 of the top teachers in the U.S. have been chosen to go to the Galapagos Islands, with the Toyota International Teacher Program. The program is designed to engage a variety of conservation and education issues that the teachers can then give back to their students and communities. I'm traveling along to report on the trip's experiences and lessons. Follow along here and on the Toyota International Teacher Program Wiki.
More on the Galapagos
5 Things Everyone Should Know About the Galapagos: An Introduction
Should The Galapagos Be Taken Off The Endangered Sites List?
Weird and Wonderful Galapagos Wildlife Worth Saving (Slideshow)

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