Lonesome George, a Galapagos giant tortoise believed to be the last of his subspecies, has died, according to Galapagos National Park officials.
First seen by a Hungarian scientist on the Galapagos island of Pinta, or Abingdon, in 1972, Lonesome George became a symbol of the Galapagos Islands. With no other known individuals of his subspecies left, George had the unfortunate distinction of being considered the rarest animal in the world.
Giant tortoise declines
Galapagos giant tortoises were once so numerous that Spanish explorers named the Galapagos archipelago after them. However, these large reptiles were hunted by sailors and fishermen for their meat and oil, and more recently have suffered habitat loss and competition due to introduced goats and cattle. Introduced predators such as cats, dogs and rats also predate the more vulnerable juveniles.
There are a number of different subspecies of Galapagos giant tortoise, and the differences in appearance between the tortoises from different islands were among the features that helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution.
Overall, around 20,000 giant tortoises are thought to now remain on the Galapagos Islands, but three subspecies have already become extinct or are extinct in the wild.
Failed breeding attempts
Despite efforts by conservationists to breed George with females from closely related giant tortoise subspecies, he sadly failed to reproduce successfully. With his death, the Pinta Island subspecies, also known as the Abingdon giant tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), is the latest giant tortoise subspecies to become extinct.
Lonesome George was estimated to be around 100 years old at his death, although Galapagos giant tortoises can potentially live up to 150 years or more. Park officials are due to carry out a post-mortem to determine the cause of his death.
Fortunately, conservation efforts are underway to save other Galapagos giant tortoise subspecies. For example, a programme running since the 1970s raises hatchlings in captivity until they are large and robust enough not to succumb to predators in the wild.
This programme has shown encouraging success, increasing the population of the Critically Endangered Hood Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra hoodensis) from just 13 individuals in the 1970s to over 1,000 in the wild today.
Read more about Lonesome George at BBC – Last Pinta giant tortoise Lonesome George dies.
Liz Shaw, ARKive Species Text Author