Lonesome George, a giant tortoise believed to be the last of its subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdoni), has died at what scientists on his home on the Galapagos Island of Pinta estimate to be the age of 100. First spotted by a Hungarian scientist conducting research on the island in 1972, George was found dead in his corral this week by Fausto Llerena, his keeper of forty years. With no known offspring and no surviving individuals of his subspecies documented, Lonesome George came to be regarded in recent years by the scientific community as the rarest creature in the world. For almost two decades, attempts were made to mate the giant tortoise–weighing in at 194 pounds–with females of a similar subspecies, but in the end these encounters proved bootless. After living for fifteen years with a female tortoise from nearby Wolf volcano, George did in fact mate, but the eggs were discovered to be infertile, so that George leaves this earth after some 100 years on it as the definitive end of his line.
Tortoises could once be found in abundance on the Galapagos islands, but since the late 19th century have been hunted by sailors and fishermen to the point of extinction. But tortoises are far from unique in this regard–over 99.9% of all species that have ever inhabited the earth are now extinct. In 2004, a conference of the International Union for Conservation of Nature declared that human-related activity such as logging, hunting, and climate change is finally depleting the number of species in the world faster than new ones can evolve–a fact of uncertain meaning for the world ecosystem but certainly of sad import for the imagination. It is strange to consider, in speaking of Lonesome George and evolution, that the variation in the appearance of tortoises from different islands in the Galapagos was one of the features that led the young Charles Darwin to develop his revolutionary theory. And with tortoises of Lonesome George’s species often living to 200 years of age, it is quite possible (if scientists are a little off in their estimation of his age) that George himself made the acquaintance of the famed British zoologist, whose ship the HMS Beagle made landfall on the islands in 1835. // Patrick Barrett