Extinction is alive and well at the American Museum of Natural History. A stroll through the famous NYC institution passes fearsome skeletons that wouldn’t have let you walk by 300 million years ago, as well as more diminutive critters better resembling prehistoric pets. For the most part, these remains are ghostly embodiments of eras far removed from modern visitors, making it easy to perceive the creatures’ demise as a matter of course. Many extinctions can be chalked up to bad luck or unsuitable traits, but once the skeletons’ timelines overlap with those of humans, the now-familiar pattern of anthropogenic extinction emerges. While gazing at some mournful relic from the Australasian megafauna extinction, one might become a little misty-eyed and decide to duck into an emptier corner of the hall. (Alternatively, one might have made the brilliant decision to visit on the Saturday after Christmas, when half of the 47 billion people spending their holiday in the city have decided that they must see some dinosaurs, immediately please, and need to duck into that corner to avoid becoming a relic yourself.)
Presuming one is in the appropriate corner, one will come face-to-face with a very large preserved tortoise in a very large glass case- and that’s it. After the hubbub of the last few halls, it’s immediately obvious that this is one Very Special Tortoise to have merited an entire turret (the actual museum phrase) to himself. The isolation is symbolic: this is Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island tortoise (Chelonoidis abingdoni) from the Galapagos. Meeting Lonesome George is shocking. After rows of long-gone behemoths that evoke little sympathy, here is an adorable tortoise, a staple of every kid’s Galapagos lessons, who breathed his last a little more than 2 years ago. The display is especially unnerving if one didn’t even realize that the Pinta Island tortoises were kaput in the first place. It’s a sudden and eerie revelation, to be looking at the last of something.
In Lonesome George’s case, he was the last of a subspecies of Galapagos tortoises. Pinta Island, home of the eponymous tortoises, is the northern-most major island in the Galapagos. The tortoises were exploited by whalers and sailors in the 1800s, and were presumed extinct on Pinta Island by the turn of that century. If there were many tortoises left by the mid-1900s, their fate was sealed with the introduction of goats that gobbled up vegetation, eliminating viable tortoise habitat. In 1971, a Hungarian scientist named József Vágvölgyi happened to spot Lonesome George ambling around Pinta Island, Jurassic-Park-style, and the tortoise was gathered up and flown to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.
Researchers studied Lonesome George and worked to ensure his good health, but they were also on a quest any single person can relate to: finding love for Lonesome George. Unlike some other Georges, though, you could buy this one love. The research center offered $10,000 for a female Pinta Island tortoise, hoping the reward might daylight a suitable mate half-forgotten at some zoo. In the meantime, scientists attempted to set up Lonesome George with genetically similar lady tortoises, but nothing stuck. An eternal bachelor, Lonesome George died suddenly on June 24, 2012. He was thought to be a little over 100 years old, and his death took the world by surprise, as tortoises typically live approximately 150 years.
Lonesome George has since been preserved and stuffed, and was on display at the American Museum of Natural History until January 2015, when he was bundled up and shipped back to Ecuador. Species and subspecies go extinct with alarming frequency, many before science has even described them, but the passing of this tortoise had a particularly emotional impact on people the world over. Lonesome George merited a New York Times obituary, which opened, “In a world beset with intractable economic and political problems, why should the death of a tortoise matter? Because his death alerts us to our blindness to the natural world, and because he was known as the rarest creature on earth, the last of his subspecies, and we will never see his kind again.” NPR Skunk Bear even composed a folk ballad to Lonesome George, included below and highly recommended. As the t-shirt slogan goes, extinction is forever, and that’s easier to conceptualize when looking at the face of a subspecies that will never look back.
For more info:
Galapagos Conservancy: http://www.galapagos.org/about_galapagos/lonesome-george/