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Remembering Lonesome George

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Lonesome George, who died in 2012, was the last of the Pinta Island tortoises. 
Photo courtesy of Flickr/David Cook

On Sunday, the tree of life lost another member: Lonesome George, the famed last survivor of the Pinta Island tortoises (Chelonoidis abingdoni). Director of the Museum’s Center for Biodiveristy and Conservation Eleanor Sterling has been in the Galapagos for the past few days. She recently answered a few questions about Lonesome George’s passing and legacy.

What are you doing in the Galapagos?

Eleanor Sterling: The Galapagos National Park Service and the Galapagos Conservancy called together a meeting of experts on public participation in monitoring and conservation and I was invited as a specialist.

Who was Lonesome George?

Sterling: Lonesome George was a giant tortoise who was close to a century old and who was quite famous for being the last known representative of his species. And with his death, the whole species that was found on Pinta Island in the Galapagos is now extinct. There are other individuals who have some of the genes of Pinta Island tortoises, but he was last known individual to have the full genome of this species.

What role did humans play in the decline of his species?

Sterling: Seafaring individuals stopped by the Galapagos and collected tens of thousands of tortoises over the years. They packed their hulls with tortoises to use as food as they traveled around rest of world, because tortoises could last a long time without dying. Humans also introduced species such as rats to the islands where tortoises live, and those introduced species compete with tortoises for food or depredate on their young and eggs.

What role do giant tortoises play in ecosystems?

Sterling: They’re important in the way they transform the size, shape, and reproduction of the cacti that they eat as well as the way that their large shells and bodies essentially mow down vegetation such as young cacti. These tortoises play an important role in maintaining habitat for other species, so much so that we call them ecosystem engineers.

What’s the significance of the ongoing loss of species worldwide?

Sterling: It’s difficult to estimate the role that any single species plays in a particular environment, nor can we predict what the effects of a species loss will be on an ecosystem. But certainly the loss of ecosystem engineers means that a system is going to go through major changes that will reverberate across species. That being said, Lonesome George and his relatives have been gone from Pinta Island for decades, so our concern in this case is with endangered tortoises on other islands and how we can avoid their loss as well. Perhaps more importantly, we have lost a fellow species on Earth and we humans have a moral responsibility to recognize our role in its extinction. We are obliged to think about how we can support healthy people and healthy ecosystems in the future.

What has the mood in the community been like following Lonesome George’s passing?

The Galápagos National Park staff and researchers here are devastated. Around the town of Puerto Ayora, people are sad or commenting on his death. He was a wonderful ambassador for the rich and diverse life in the Galápagos as well as for the plight of endangered species. There are signs in stores and restaurants mourning his loss and the extinction of a species.

What are the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation’s projects in the area and how does the CBC partner with local organizations?

Sterling: Currently, we work with the Galapagos National Park Service as well as James Gibbs from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry to understand the role of tortoises in the larger ecosystem and to help conserve these magnificent creatures.