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Bidding Farewell to Lonesome George


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. It's not often that people pay tribute, even eulogize, an animal, unless it's a famous film star like Lassie or maybe Trigger. But this week, they are remembering Lonesome George, the famous giant Galapagos tortoise thought to be over 100 years old and the last known member of his subspecies.

Over the years, researchers tried to get George to mate with other tortoises to continue the line, but the eggs were never viable. And last weekend, Lonesome George died, apparently of old age, bringing to an end the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies.

Joining me now is Linda Cayot, scientific advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy. Previously, she was the herpetologist for Darwin Station in the Galapagos, where she got to know George quite well. She joins us by phone from the Galapagos. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

LINDA CAYOT: Thank you very much, I'm really happy to be here today.

FLATOW: What do you remember most about Lonesome George?

CAYOT: Wow, I've known George for over 30 years, and some of the interesting things working with him was just, he was a very different personality than many other tortoises, and it was always a challenge to try and figure out what the best thing to do was for George.

And among the things that we tried when I was supervising the tortoise breeding center was bringing some - a couple of females from Wolf Volcano to be in his corral. I also had a young woman from Switzerland volunteering for a couple of months, trying to do sexual stimulation with George.

And there were a lot of things we did with George, always trying to recover the Pinta population of tortoises.

FLATOW: But nothing worked out, huh?

CAYOT: Nothing worked out. George was never very interested in any other tortoises. He was pretty much of a loner. And if you think about his life on Pinta, he spent probably the first half of his life alone on that island, and maybe by the time he'd gotten company with other tortoises, he just wasn't too into socializing much anymore.

FLATOW: Now, what made him unique genetically? Why is he the last of his kind?

CAYOT: Well, tortoises in general in the Galapagos Islands were exploited primarily by the whalers, before that by buccaneers, but whaling logbooks show that there were probably 100,000 to 200,000 tortoises removed from Galapagos in the 1800s. And each island that suffered that exploitation resulted in some with very, very few tortoises, such as Espanola that only had 14 tortoises left, and then Pinta that ended up with only George left on that island.

So it was primarily through exploitation from previous centuries, and then some hunting, perhaps, in the 20th century, but George was all alone up there.

FLATOW: Let me ask you, you said something very interesting before. You said that George had a unique personality. Do tortoises really have personalities?

CAYOT: Well, you know, I wouldn't say in general. I worked - I did my Ph.D. with the giant tortoises and spent two and a half years pretty much living out there with the tortoises on Santa Cruz Island and Pinzon. And in general, I could not differentiate too much between behavior of certain tortoises.

But there were always a few individuals that had their own specific behavior or even personality, I would say. And again, I think what made George so different was having grown up alone.

FLATOW: So what happens to the body of George? Is he going to be buried? Is he going to be preserved and put in a museum? Can you fill us in on that?

CAYOT: OK, they did - a local veterinarian who works with the park service here did the initial necropsy on George to try to determine cause of death. There was nothing severely wrong with him. His liver looks a little bad. So that's why they're saying that it's probably primarily due to old age.

They do have tissues that they will continue to do some analysis for. The body has now been prepared for transport. It is being frozen at this moment in a form so that it will not break in transport, and the idea is to send it out and have very, very specialized taxidermists work on producing a mount of Lonesome George that will be returned to Galapagos to be put in the Galapagos National Park Service Visitor's Center so that people who have not yet had the chance to see him will at least be able to see the final mount of Lonesome George here in Galapagos.

FLATOW: So it's sort of the end of era, then, for all of us who have seen him and visited the Galapagos and got to watch him poke around a little bit. It's sort of the end of an era.

CAYOT: It is definitely the end of an era, and everyone down here on last Sunday, when we got the news, it was a very difficult time for all of us both for the individual Lonesome George and for the fact that we lost this subspecies forever.

It also was an interesting thing here because it kind of reinforced the importance of the work we do and the future and trying to ensure that no other species or subspecies are lost in Galapagos. And the timing itself is interesting, as we have an international workshop planned for next week that is convened by the Galapagos National Park and part-organized by Galapagos Conservancy to discuss the tortoise situation on all of the islands and look at the next 10 years of research and management leading to better tortoise population restoration throughout the archipelago.

FLATOW: Have you been able to restore the populations to any extent?

CAYOT: Several of them. I mean, Espanola had only 14 individuals left in the 1960s, and then it was 12 females and two males. A third male was found in the San Diego Zoo and brought back to Galapagos (unintelligible) 1975. And there have now been about 2,000 young tortoises released back to that island through the reproduction program at the tortoise center here on Santa Cruz.

The same holds true for several of the other populations. I would say many of the populations are out of danger. But we're still, given the exploitation from the 1800s, the total tortoise population of Galapagos is still about 10 to 20 percent of the original population. So we have a long way to go to bring them back to the original populations.

FLATOW: A couple of questions tweeted and asked by listeners of the same ilk, saying: Would it be possible to clone him?

CAYOT: OK, this is an interesting thing, and we are trying to save some of Lonesome George's tissues, cells. Cloning in reptiles has really not been developed at all, and we're doing - a few mammals seem to be doing OK, but in general the technology, the methodology to actually clone reptiles is decades away.

So hopefully they will be able to maintain cells as in cryogenics, and who knows in the future, but at the moment, it would be impossible.

FLATOW: Linda Cayot, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today, and all our sympathies here at SCIENCE FRIDAY to everybody out there at the Galapagos.

CAYOT: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Linda Cayot is a scientific advisor to the Galapagos Conservancy and previously she was the herpetologist for Darwin Station in the Galapagos, where she got to know Lonesome George for 30 years. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.