Only the Lonely

Meet Lonesome George, a subspecies of Galapagos Tortoise.

Galapagos Tortoises are great examples of insular gigantism, the phenomenon by which reptiles, insects, and birds on islands have a tendency to become enormous. (The reverse is true for terrestrial mammals; remind me to tell y’all about the kitten-sized foxes I met while visiting San Nicolas Island off the coast of LA.) Without competition from mammals, the tortoises had as much grass as they could eat, and grew into giants. Like the famous finches and everything else on the Galapagos, the tortoises have branched out into several species over the many islands. George is a Pinta Island Tortoise.

Of course, everything changed when humans found the islands. Goats introduced from the mainland consumed the tortoises’ food supply, and invasive pests attacked them directly. Now Lonesome George is the rarest animal on Earth. He is the only one of his kind.

This is the face of extinction. Since his discovery in 1971 — before which, the Pinta Tortoise was presumed extinct already — the race has been on to find a purebred Pinta female. But the island is small and largely tree-less, and hope has all but been erased. Now George, who may be as old as 90, starts and ends each day by scouring the island for a mate… as he has for the past 40 or 50 years. Try to imagine, if you can, what it would be like to know you are the last of your race. The last speaker of your language. The last dodo, sounding your mating call from the rocks, forever unanswered except by your echo.

And yet, hope persists against all odds. A revolutionary study of the genomic microsatellites — DNA patterns found in related animals — in tortoises of neighboring Isabela Island seems to imply that, among the 2,000 individuals there, it’s possible there is one purebred Pinta Island Tortoise shuffled in among them. In other words, there is enough Pinta DNA in the Isabela population to suggest that perhaps one individual — male or female — might have been taken across the channel and, with their 150 year life span, might still survive. Remember what I’ve been saying about finding hypothetical animals you haven’t actually seen? This is that. The two species resemble each other so much, it would be impossible to tell by looking. But with luck, and a lot of tissue samples, it’s possible that humans could produce a miracle to fix the egregious sin we’ve committed. And Lonesome George, after perhaps half a century, might not be totally alone after all.


About quantumbiologist

Christian Drake, AKA The Quantum Biologist, is a naturalist and poet formerly of Albuquerque, NM and currently living deep in the backwoods of the Connecticut Berkshires. He has worked in aquariums and planetariums, national parks and urban forests. When not birding or turning over rocks to find weird bugs, he enjoys rockabilly music, gourmet cooking, playing harmonica and writing dirty haiku. View all posts by quantumbiologist

3 responses to “Only the Lonely

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