And Then There Were None: Lonesome George Dies in the Galapagos

Lonesome George, the last known Pinta giant tortoise in existence, has died - Photo by A. DaveyLonesome George, the last known Pinta giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) in existence, has died. Galapagos National Park Service officials announced in June that George— believed to be around 100 years old—was found dead in his corral by his keeper of 40 years, Fausto Llerena.

Since his discovery in 1972, George had been an ambassador for the Galapagos Islands, a reminder of the role the island chain’s multi-faceted ecosystem played in helping Charles Darwin formulate his ideas about evolution. During Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos in 1835, as a naturalist aboard HMS Beagle, he noted the marked divergence of tortoises, finches, and other species as they adapted to the unique habitat conditions presented by the various isolated islands in the chain. His observations ignited the insights that would lead to publication—24 years later—of his groundbreaking theory.

But George also served as a poignant cautionary tale as to what can happen when humans inadvertently or willfully set forces in motion that can lead to extinction. Until the sailing ships arrived, tortoises in their myriad forms were plentiful on the Galapagos Islands, but were quickly overwhelmed by sailors who saw them as an easily obtained and storable source of meat for their journeys. Even as hunting caused tortoise numbers to plummet, their habitat was being overrun by voracious goats introduced from the mainland.

Over the years, there have been numerous efforts to find mates for George from related species. The attempts to refill the gene pool came to naught, however. The few clutches of eggs produced were not viable—done in by the divergence that inspired Darwin’s “aha” moment and continues to make the Galapagos a powerful symbol for conservation.