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Requiescat in Pace, Lonesome George… et alii

Bill Meredith

Museum visitor: "Pardon me, Sir, but can you tell me how old that dinosaur is?"
Guide: "Certainly, Ma’am; it is 70 million and four years old."
Visitor: "Amazing! But how can you be so precise?"
Guide: "Well, when I started working here they told me it was 70 million years old, and I’ve been here four years now."
   … from "Meredith’s List of the Oldest Known Museum Jokes," 3rd Edition, 1973.

(August, 2102) I was taken by surprise last month when headlines in both the Washington Post and Time magazine announced that Lonesome George had died on June 24, at the age of 100. I probably wasn’t the only one to be surprised, for to folks of my age there was only one Lonesome George. That was George Goebel, the TV comedian whose show we all watched in the 1950s, and I was pretty sure he died 20 years or so ago. However, I have reached the age when I am never certain about facts, so I felt compelled to read the whole article. It proved to be a recitation of a story that is all too common in the history of Ecology.

It turned out that the Lonesome George who died last month was a turtle… or, more properly, a giant Galapagos tortoise. He was the last survivor of a subspecies that had lived on Pinta Island, one of a group of 15 islands in the Pacific Ocean, about 600 miles west of Ecuador. Pinta is a small island, and the tortoise population there never had been very big, but it was stable until 1958 when someone released a herd of goats there. The goats, having no natural enemies there, multiplied rapidly and ate all of the vegetation that the tortoises lived on. In 1971, a biologist found only one tortoise still alive there; he rescued him and took him to the National Park on the largest island, where he lived as a minor celebrity and tourist attraction. He seemed content in captivity, as nearly as one can judge contentment in a tortoise; he attained a weight of 197 pounds and a length of about five feet. He mated several times with females of related subspecies, but none of the resulting eggs hatched.

Biologists always get a bit misty-eyed when the Galapagos Islands are mentioned, because Charles Darwin encountered the tortoises there on his famous voyage around the world in 1835. But the tortoises had been known to live there long before Darwin’s time. The islands were discovered in 1535; Galapagos is the Portuguese word for tortoise, and the islands became famous because of them. Ships carrying gold and silver from the Spanish colonies would stop there for water, and sailors would capture as many tortoises as their ship could hold. Some of them weighed over 800 pounds, and they could live up to 18 months without food or water, so they were an ideal source of fresh meat on ships that had to spend months on the homeward voyage. The islands also became a favorite place for pirates to hide and attack the treasure ships; the earliest known map of the islands was made by an English pirate, Ambrose Cowley, in 1684. The pirates lived on tortoise meat; another pirate, William Dampier, wrote in his journal that "no pullet eats more sweetly."

Based on fossil shells and museum records, it is believed that there were once at least 15 subspecies of tortoise on the Galapagos, and it is estimated that their total population was around 250,000 when the islands were discovered. In addition to exploitation by sailors, the numbers were reduced by habitat destruction by farming and the introduction of predatory species such as pigs, rats and cats which ate the eggs and young tortoises. When Darwin arrived there were 12 subspecies left, and one of them was exterminated by 1850. A survey in 1974 revealed a total population on all the islands of only 3060. Since then, captive breeding programs have increased the total population to about 20,000, but with the death of Lonesome George there are now only 10 surviving subspecies.

Biologists generally agree that the life spans of turtles, as a group, are among the longest of any animals, but like the old joke about the museum guide, it is hard to be certain of their accuracy. The shell of a turtle is covered with scales which grow by adding a ring of new material each year, and age can be determined accurately from the rings on young specimens; but in older individuals the earliest rings begin to fall off from wear or injury. Galapagos tortoises live in the slow lane; sexual maturity is not reached until the age of about 25, and they may live over a century after that, so age often has to be estimated by size. The most reliable ages are from specimens raised in captivity, but even these are not foolproof because tortoise life spans may exceed three human generations, and records are often lost or mixed up. One of the most believable records I found was of "Cha Cha," a tortoise given to an Indian Rajah and raised in the Calcutta Zoo; she was believed to be about six years old when she arrived, and lived in the zoo for 170 years before her death in 2004. The internet is full of less believable examples. One such article said Lonesome George was "at age 100, the world’s oldest turtle," although the authorities at the Park where he lived admitted that his age was an estimation. Another source claimed a pet tortoise that lived for several generations with a family on the island of Majorca was 250 years old. More toward the far side, another source described a turtle that was "536 years when it was murdered and made into soup." (I questioned this one, because a nearby note said the world’s oldest Unicorn was 230 years old.)

Unfortunately, the story of Lonesome George is a common one; he was unique only because he came from an area that had a well documented ecological history, and he lived long enough in captivity to become widely known as the last of his kind in this era of mass communication and advertising. Ecologists can provide lists of species that have been driven to extinction by human exploitation on almost every island in the world. Some of this was the result of prehistoric colonizations, like the Maoris who destroyed the Moa (also called "elephant bird) in New Zealand. Others were like the sailors who killed off the Dodo birds in Madagascar. Even on the North American continent, species such as the heath hen, a game bird in New England, and the Carolina Parakeet, were hunted to extinction in the 19th century. The millions of buffalo that inhabited the western states were reduced to a few small herds, and the wolves that preyed on them were wiped out in the Continental U. S., although they have recently re-entered from Canada. My grandparents remembered hunting passenger pigeons, which numbered in the millions before the 20th century; the last one, a female named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1917, an avian equivalent of Lonesome George.

In addition to the buffalo and wolves, there have been a few tentative successes in bringing animals back from the edge of extinction. Around 1940 there were only 15 whooping cranes left in the wild, and captive breeding programs (often featured on TV nature programs) have now increased them to a few hundreds. The same is true for the California Condor, the largest land bird in North America; only 22 of them existed in 1987, but there are now 226 living in the wild. But at the rate that wildlife habitats are being converted to human use, hundreds of species all over the world are headed for extinction in the next few years. In a few cases, there will be a Lonesome George individual to remind us of their passing. But most of them will go quietly, unrecognized, and with them goes the stability of the world’s ecosystems. As Pogo said, we have met the enemy, and he is us. Our time will come too.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith