Lonesome George, the centenarian Galapagos Island turtle was found dead one morning last weekend in his corral. He was the last of his kind.
George was “Lonesome” because he’d shown no great interest in mating with genetically similar tortoises. Two clutches of eggs that he did help produce failed to incubate, and his longest romance was with the wartime helmet of the late Lord Devon – presumably because it looked like a young tortoise. [readon]
No one knows exactly how old George was,” said Joe Flanagan, head vet at the Houston zoo, who knew George for more than 20 years. “He had a unique personality. His natural tendency was to avoid people. He was very evasive. He had his favorites and his routines, but he really only came close to his keeper Llerena. He represents what we wanted to preserve for ever. When he looked at you, you saw time in the eyes,”
George may possibly even have been 200 years old, which is quite common for tortoises of his kind.
George and his kind have been in big trouble in the Galapagos. His relatives were were wiped out for food and oil by hunters in the 19th century, and his home was devastated by goats who’d been imported. To the best of our knowledge, his whole subspecies is now gone.
Should we have cloned George?
Scientists, meanwhile, are arguing over whether other endangered turtles should be cloned so we can perhaps resurrect their line in the future.
Discovery explores the issue.
Frozen Zoos stockpile biological materials from a wide variety of rare and critically endangered species. The biological material is usually composed of gametes (sperm and egg cells), embryos, tissue samples, serum and other items. Together, they represent a bank vault of irreplaceable genetic information that can be preserved for possibly hundreds of years or more. In most cases, the materials are stored in holding tanks filled with liquid nitrogen.
Oliver Ryder, director of genetics at the San Diego Zoo, flew out to the Galapagos Islands this week to help preserve the tissues of Lonesome George in case it may be possible to bring his kind back at some future time. Right now, the technology doesn’t exist. For starters, while there has been some success in cloning certain mammals, we just don’t know enough to do it with reptiles.
Martha Gomez is a senior scientist with the Audubon Nature Institute, which has a so-called “frozen zoo.”
Earlier this year, Gomez and her colleagues successfully cloned endangered black-footed cats. An endangered wild ox, called a gaur, and a banteng (wild cattle) have also been successfully cloned. Work is underway to clone and otherwise increase the population of Sumatran rhinos, which presently number only about 200-300 in the wild.
Meanwhile, a conservative estimate from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says that one in four species of all mammals are expected to go extinct in this century – and one in three of all reptiles.
That will make tortoises like George a lot more lonesome than they are today.