In 2012, the world bid goodbye to Lonesome George, the last-known surviving giant tortoise from Pinta Island in the Galapagos. His death, at the age of 100, was yet another sad milestone commemorating man's impact on this world, signaling the end of an entire subspecies.
Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta Island in 1971, surprising biologists who had thought the island species extinct due to overhunting by man and the introduction of habitat-destroying feral goats. His status as "the last of his kind" brought international fame and made him a poster animal for conservation in the Galapagos. Attempts to breed George and preserve his species were, unfortunately, unsuccessful. When he died, he was considered "the rarest animal in the world."
The loss of Lonesome George was a sad moment, but one group of scientists says there's still much we can learn from it. An international group of geneticists and biologists collected genetic samples from George and another giant tortoise species (the Aldabra giant tortoise). They sequenced those genes and compared them to other related species, hoping to determine which traits are related to longevity. Their research was recently published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.
They hope to uncover what genes are related to a longer life, as well as to work toward conservation.
"A better understanding of the processes that we have studied may help to further elucidate the biology of these species and therefore aid the ongoing efforts to conserve these dwindling lineages," the researchers write. "Lonesome George—the last representative of C. abingdonii, and a renowned emblem of the plight of endangered species—left a legacy including a story written in his genome whose unveiling has just started."
It's just one way to help tell Lonesome George's story and why he mattered.
Remembering George in song
In 2015, NPR's Skunk Bear division paid respects to George with a musical memorial that's both sweet and heartbreaking. The catchy lyrics and animation do a fine job of sharing George's story — giving us pause to remember the species we share this world with, while also adding hope that the world's most lonesome tortoise finally met his "tortoise lady in that island in the sky."
Editor's note: This story was originally published in January 2015 and has been updated with new information.