Lonesome George's Lesson in Biodiversity


The death of the last Pinta giant galapagos tortoise, Lonesome George, offers a rare occasion in witnessing an extinction event.

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Last week the world reeled from the loss of the last living giant Galapagos Tortoise of Pinta Island, Chelonoidis nigra, aptly named Lonesome George.  George became a symbol of preservation around the world and especially for the ecologically unique string of pacific islands since the 1970’s.  His presence on Pinta Island surprised biologists, who had thought his sub-species had already entered extinction.  But alas, George was the last.

George lived out the remainder of his life at the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador.  His caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found his lifeless body in his enclosure last week.  The park’s director Edwin Nuala simply said, “His life cycle came to an end.”  An autopsy revealed that George died of old age.  He was about 100-years-old.  
The tragedy of George’s lonely life is that he failed to leave any offspring, despite relentless efforts of conservationists.  When he officially became the last, the extinction of his subspecies was all but inevitable and ultimately sealed with his death.  Now, biologists and conservationists are questioning whether George should have been cloned during his life as a means to off-put his subspecies’ extinction.  Plans or his embalming have already been announced by Minister Marcela Aguinaga, Ecuador’s environment minister.  As stated earlier, George had become a symbol of preservation in the last decades of his life, and so he shall remain.
"More than just a symbol for the Galapagos, Lonesome George was a symbol of our global never-ending struggle to preserve the richness and diversity and beauty of the planet we inherited,” the International Union for the Conservation of Nature said in an open letter.
George hailed from the peninsula whose biodiversity inspired Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Today, evolutionary biologists and conservationists are still debating the exact cost of George’s loss, and more generally, what the loss of a subspecies means to biodiversity as a whole.  An expert on Lonesome George, Dr. Henry Nicholls, points out that usually we don’t notice an event of extinction until it is too late.  But George’s case was special, in that he was discovered well in advance of his death and his status as the last of his kind sparked an environmental movement of awareness.  Thus, George’s death is far more poignant to us than a typical extinction event.  
Despite the cost to biodiversity George’s death brings, there may be some consolation in a modern tale of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.  Scientists from Yale have discovered a first generation hybrid species of the Pinta giant tortoises (George’s subspecies) and Isabela tortoises.  The definition of subspecies means that these two branches have morphological distinctions -- they have adapted to their environments -- but are still able to interbreed.  So, while George and his subspecies are permanently gone, there is the possibility of reintroduction of giant tortoises to Pinta Island. 
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