I hatched on a sunny afternoon in 1911. Around the world, important things were happening. Machu Picchu, the legendary lost city of the Inca, was discovered deep in a Peruvian jungle a few weeks before I crawled out of the sand: a few weeks later Italy and Turkey went to war over possession of Libya. But I had no way of knowing these things as I made my way to a shady spot on Pinta Island with my four fellow hatchlings. I just knew that there was a whole island for me to explore.
I grew up on Pinta, northernmost of the Galapagos Islands, far away from people. My friends were swallow-tailed gulls, lava lizards and my fellow tortoises: if I went down to the water I could see the sea lions playing in the water and the marine iguanas sunning themselves on the rocks. When I was little, I had to keep one eye open for the hawks that circled far above, but once I was a little bigger and my shell was strong I feared them no more. I was frightened of no animal, really: once I was safe from the hawks, there were no more predators I had to fear…or so I thought.
Humans came to the island from time to time, and they often carried off my friends and family with them. I didn’t know why they did, but I suspected that it was for no good reason, so I always hid in the shade when they came. It seems every day there were fewer and fewer of my friends left. It didn’t help that the goats were there: I remember seeing them for the first time, hairy beasts that ate all of our food. We hated them because they were so quick and nimble: there was no way we could ever beat them to a tasty snack.
It got very lonely on the island. One day, a ship came and took the last of my fellow tortoises. I explored the island but it was as I had feared: I was alone.
Many years went by and I filled my time as best I knew how: I ate cactus pads and other vegetation, I lounged in the shade or in the mud (when I could find some: Pinta is very dry) and I looked around the island for my friends and family, always with no luck.
It was in 1971 that some scientists came to the island. I tried to hide, but they saw me. I was afraid they would take me away, but they didn’t. A few weeks later, some more humans came, and this time they did take me away. I was afraid they would eat me, like they had so many of my companions, but these people were different. I could hear them talking. They said they were taking me to the Charles Darwin Research Station and that I was a very special tortoise. They said they had given up hope of finding anyone like me. They looked for more tortoises, but I could have told them they were wasting their time.
At the Charles Darwin Research Station, I was given the royal treatment. I was kept around like a pet, given food and water, and the scientists talked to me. There were no goats, and best of all, there were other tortoises! They were from other islands, so they talked with funny accents, but I was still glad to see them. They even put a couple of them in the pen with me, lady tortoises from Isabela Island. Once, one of them even laid some eggs (I’m proud to say) but unfortunately they didn’t hatch. My scientist friends seem to hope that I’ll continue having eggs with the Isabela ladies, but I don’t know. I wish there was another Pinta tortoise like me here.
Meanwhile, I’m living the life of a celebrity! Prince Charles of England came to see me, and so did Leonardo DiCaprio, Chevy Chase and a whole bunch of other famous people. Every day, hundreds of people walk past my pen, just to look at me. I still like to lounge in the shade, so sometimes they don’t see me, but they all come nevertheless. People from all over the world! I get all the food I want, I have other tortoises to keep me company, and best of all, I haven’t seen a single goat in forty years.
The scientists have told me that they’re looking for more Pinta Island tortoises for me, and I hope they find one. They say there might be one in someplace called Prague, and that there might be one on Isabela. It would be great to see one of my old friends again!
Lonesome George Dead!
Lonesome George, the last of his Giant tortoise species, has died at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands. Lonesome George’s death was announced by the Edwin Naula, the head of the Galapagos National Park service.
Galapagos National Park Officials plan to carry out a post mortem. No one knows exactly how old George was but he was thought to be 100 years old. 100 years is not exceptional for Giant tortoises which can live up to 200 years old.
“This morning the park ranger in charge of looking after George found him dead. His body was motionless,” said Naula.
Fausto Llerena, George’s caretaker for 40 years, found Lonesome George dead at the Charles Darwin Research Station early on morning of June 24th, 2012. “His body was still warm but without life”. He said.
The Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni) is now an extinct subspecies of
Galapagos Giant tortoise. The Species was considered extinct until the discovery of George in 1972 on his native Pinta Island. George was moved to the Charles Darwin Research station on Santa Cruz Island and a global search for a mate continued until recently. Various attempts to breed George with similar species failed.
Lonesome George almost ready to return
After a cooperative agreement between the Galapagos National Park and the Museum, the embalmed body of Lonesome George will enter the lab to undergo an exhaustive inspection and obtain a fiberglass mold that will result in a bronze replica cast. Once this process is over, Lonesome George will return home to Ecuador.
Very carefully and in with the help of experts, the famous turtle will be taken home to the renewed “Fausto Llerena” facilities in Santa Cruz, the place where he lived his last 40 years, and where a technically self-sustaining infrastructure and adequate room for interpretation will provide all guarantees for maintaining the embalmed George is being built.
On his way home his keeper, companion and friend Fausto Llerena who watched after him for over 20 years will escort him. The total investment in Lonesome George’s final home is of over two million dollars.
George holds a position with their limbs and neck extended, as he used to receive the thousands of tourists who visited him in life. Lonesome George is considered a national heritage asset and represents conservation efforts invested by the Ecuadorian State on the survival of the flora and fauna of the country.
With proper handling and cares we can have Lonesome George’s company last throughout generations.
GalapagosIslands.com, offers you the chance to meet the most famous tortoise while visiting the country that has it all, including the unique Galapagos Islands, where you will spend the vacations that you will never forget.
Lonesome George Returns
The most famous giant tortoise of the Galapagos Islands – Lonesome George – has returned to our midst.
Lonesome George – called Solitario Jorge in his native Ecuador – was the last full-blooded Pinta tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni). He was found alone on that island in 1971 and brought to the tortoise breeding center on Santa Cruz Island.
For decades, the search was on to find another Pinta tortoise, whether in the wild or in a zoo someplace in the world. He became an icon of the conservation movement.
When it became evident that Lonesome George was the last of his kind, two females from Isabela Island’s Wolf Volcano (C. becki) became his corral mates. It was later discovered the Española tortoise (C. hoodensis) was a genetically closer relative. He welcomed two females of that species. He bred with them, but unfortunately, the eggs proved to be infertile.
Early in the morning on June 24th, 2012, his caretaker, Fausto Llerena, found Lonesome George dead in his corral. An autopsy showed the cause of death to be natural causes. He was approximately 110 years old.
Lonesome George was sent to The American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City to be preserved. After more than a year of meticulous work by taxidermists and conservationists from the museum, Galapagos National Park and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (Syracuse), this famous giant tortoise is now ready to return to us.
He strikes the pose he did every morning when Mr. Llerena would arrive to feed him. Lonesome George stretches his neck out, just like he used to when he would “talk” with his caretaker.
Lonesome George was on exhibit at the AMNH September 19, 2014 – January 4, 2015. On the opening night of the exhibit (September 18), Dr. Linda Cayot and Johannah Barry of Galapagos Conservancy, Dr. Arturo Izurieta, Director of Galapagos National Park, and other panelists presented “ Lonesome George returns and the Galapagos Today: What the Tortoise Taught Us. ”
The discussion will be recorded and made available for view by the Galapagos Conservancy.
In January 2015, Lonesome George will return to Ecuador, where he will be kept on the mainland where all Ecuadorians can see him.
At the Fausto Llerena Breeding Center at Puerto Ayora (Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos Islands), a new interpretive center will display a life-size bronze statue of Lonesome George.
Lonesome George is a continuing reminder to us that extinction is forever.
Galapagos Tortoise Brought Back from the Grave
The death of LonesomeGeorge marked the extinction of the Pinta Island tortoise. Other islands have also seen their giant tortoise species go extinct too such as Santa Fe and Floreana. Over the last few hundred years, sailors, whalers, and pirates slaughtered and captured so many tortoises and drove them to extinction on some islands.
There are two main types of giant tortoises in the Galapagos. The lowland tortoises that live in drier environments have longer necks which they stretch to feed as well as the characteristic saddleback-shaped shell. In the highlands where the tortoises graze on the more lush, low laying foliage, they have dome-shaped shells.
Purportedly the saddleback tortoises, such as Lonesome George’s species, and those from Floreana and Santa Fe, were favoured by the sailors, whalers, and pirates. They were closer to shore, easier to lift away, and apparently tasted better. As tortoises were sometimes collected by the hundreds to be stored alive as provisions on passing ships, the populations were quickly decimated.
Sometimes for whatever reason, some of the tortoises taken from Pinta Island or Floreana Island were tossed overboard or set free on other islands. These tortoises that made it to other islands and interbred with the native tortoises have left the genes behind that scientists hope to use to resurrect the species that human activity drove to extinction.
Genetic analysis of tortoises on Isabela Island has shown that many of the tortoises present have genes from both the Pinta and Floreana populations. These hybrid tortoises have shells that often exhibit the distinctive saddleback shape of their ancestors. Some of them have so much Pinta or Floreana tortoise DNA that it is believed their parents could have been purebred.
An expedition to Isabela Island captured many of these hybrid tortoises to be taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island where they will be part of a selective breeding programme to raise young that are genetically similar to the extinct tortoise species. Scientists say that within only a couple of generations, they could have a practically purebred Pinta Island tortoise to release into the wild.
More and more genetics is being applied as a conservation tool to save the species of our world from extinction. This new Jurassic-Park like project in the Galapagos will be the first time that genetics will bring a lost species back. When you visit the Galapagos Islands, you can see the new tortoises at the Charles Darwin Research Station. One of them who looks strikingly like Lonesome George even likes to stretch out his long neck too to get a better look at tourists.
Plan your trip to the Galapagos today, and see this historic conservation project in action. Visiting the islands gives such a valuable sense and understanding of the beauty and fragility of our world and how we can all contribute to the conservation or the planet.
Every visit to the islands supports the preservation of the Galapagos.
Tortoise Resurrected in Galapagos
Resurrecting dead creatures may be a nightmare from the realms of pure science-fiction but a new scientific program in the Galapagos, The Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) is proving that resurrecting extinct species can become a reality.
The new program is fascinating biologists and scientists around the world because it should lead to the extinct Floreana giant saddleback tortoise being resurrected from extinction.
How is this even possible? Well until the last twenty years it wasn’t possible but recent advances in DNA science has meant that museum specimens of the extinct Floreana tortoise (Chelonoidis elephantopus) collected from Floreana island roughly a hundred years ago could be analysed to obtain a genetic footprint of the giant tortoise and then compared to DNA in blood samples taken from living tortoises.
The Galapagos authorities and conservation organisations have started projects like The Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative to restore the Galapagos ecosystem to how it was before mankind arrived. The GTRI project involves re-establishing giant tortoise populations. The famous giant tortoises have played an essential role in the ecosystem of the Galapagos Islands. They act like mini bulldozers shaping the terrain around them by uprooting trees and bushes to make tortoise beds and even helping to pollinate cacti by spreading their seeds around.
But conservation groups such as the Galapagos Conservancy don’t want to reintroduce non native tortoise species to an island so only Floreana saddleback giant tortoises should be introduced to Floreana. That would be necessary anyway because only saddle backed tortoises with their longer necks and legs are suited to live on arid Floreana Island.
There’s only one problem with the wonderful idea to re-establish Floreana tortoises to Floreana Island, they were last seen 170 years ago. They’re classified as extinct!
But, in 1994 when scientists were visiting Isabela Island to monitor and record the giant tortoise populations there they found non-endemic saddleback giant tortoises roaming among the native dome-shelled giant tortoises of the island. They took blood samples of 60 tortoises and found that the saddleback tortoises had genetically divergent DNA to other tortoises living on Isabela.
By 2008, mitochondrial DNA testing of 25 museum exhibits of the Floreana tortoise gave scientists the genetic footprint of the extinct Floreana tortoise. That same year 50 researchers went back to Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island to look for more saddleback giant tortoises. They took blood samples from 1600 tortoises and found that 105 of them had mixed genes. They were hybrids of Floreana tortoises and other giant tortoise species on Isabela.
What a result! A part of the genome structure of the extinct Floreana tortoise was present in living giant tortoises on Isabela Island.
How did that happen? Until very recently it has always been assumed that mariners visiting Floreana Island in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries hunted the defenceless reptiles to extinction. When Darwin stopped by in 1835 he only saw the shells of dead tortoises and assumed that whalers, pirates, and other mariners had wiped them out. By 1850 they were reported as extinct.
The exact truth of the matter is a mystery but it’s recorded that after leaving Floreana Island many mariners stopped at Isabela Island before embarking on longer voyages across the vast Pacific Ocean. It is now thought likely that although they had loaded the Floreana tortoises as a meat source when they left Floreana they probably off-loaded them when visiting Isabela a short time later to make space for more valuable whale oil or to stash meat supplies for return visits.
The GTRI project advanced when in 2015 scientists mounted a ten day long expedition to Wolf Volcano to identify saddleback giant tortoises suitable for a special breeding program back at the Galapagos National Park Service’s captive tortoise breeding facility on Santa Cruz Island and then transport them there. Seventy field personnel were used along with a helicopter and ship support.
Once identified, blood samples were checked for Floreana and also Pinta tortoise genes. The scientists were looking for the tortoises with the highest levels of genetic footprint. None of the tortoises had Pinta tortoise ancestry but, of the 150 saddleback tortoises found and tested, 35 were identified as ancestors of the Floreana tortoise.
Clearing land with machetes and dropping large nets from helicopters hovering overhead, thirty two of the saddleback tortoises were airlifted back to the tortoise center on Santa Cruz.
Once back at Santa Cruz further DNA tests were done using sophisticated genetic assignment software which identified which tortoises have the strongest assignment to the genetic footprint of the Floreana tortoise. For example the software can determine if a tortoise is a first generation or a sixth generation hybrid. A F1 hybrid means that the individual is a child of two purebred parents.
Incredibly, two of the thirty two tortoises were classified as either purebreds or backcrosses between a F1 and a purebred Floreana tortoise. This of course means that if you visit the Tortoise Center on Santa Cruz and watch tortoises very similar to the Floreana tortoises that the first visitors to Floreana Island encountered hundreds of years ago. How cool is that?
Now the GTRI want to repopulate Floreana with the offspring of the captive Floreana gene-pool tortoises. They have created corrals at the Tortoise Center with 3 females and two males to start a captive breeding program. Before assigning the individuals to the corrals they had to also make sure that none of the 23 tortoises to be used in the breeding program were related. High relatedness can lead to inbreeding which obviously would lead to undesirable results, but testing showed that most individuals were unrelated.
The breeding program will be used to maximise the C.elephantopus genome in the baby tortoises yet to be born. It could even be possible to obtain complete genome recovery before the offspring are relocated back to Floreana Island.
The possibilities now seem endless. The 2015 expedition only explored a fraction of the estimated total tortoise-occupied range on Wolf Volcano. There is a possibility that there are purebred Floreana tortoises roaming the volcano because some of the tortoises transported to Santa Cruz were only 15 years old and quite likely had purebred parents.
Lonesome George was indeed very lonesome in the Santa Cruz tortoise center but earlier genetic estimates suggest that there could be 60-70 tortoises on Wolf Volcano with Pinta ancestry. The 2015 expedition searched a fraction of the volcano but even in that small area they estimated that there were between 5000 and 6000 tortoises living there. Could purebred Floreana or even Pinta tortoises be roaming Wolf Volcano?
The irony is that the mariners who originally butchered the tortoises to supposed extinction may just have been those responsible for saving the species by transporting some of the few surviving tortoises to Isabela Island.
All of this suggests that a more thorough expedition should be mounted to the volcano to search for, tag and test the thousands of resident tortoises. Scientists and budgets are restricted but here’s a call-out for volunteers. Form an orderly line please!