And Then There Were None, Or Were There? Lonesome George and the Giant Tortoises of the Galapagos Islands

This week science lost a celebrity of the most unusual sort. Known to people around the world as Lonesome George, he was recognized as the last living member of his subspecies, the Pinta giant tortoise (Geochelone abingdoni) one of the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. These slow and steady creatures hold a special place in science history. Observing differences between the giant tortoise populations of different Galapagos Islands helped a young Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution.

George’s death was unexpected. Giant tortoises typically live to 200 years or more, so at an estimated age of 100, George should have been in the prime of life. He was hardly lonely either. He had shared his coral with several different females over the years; all placed there in the hopes that there might be some little George hatchlings to carry on in their father’s foot steps. Unfortunately no fertile eggs were ever produced, and George died the last of his kind.

Or was he….

No end-of-a-species story is complete without an upstart challenger. In 2007 a letter was published in Current Biology that announced the identification of at lease one individual on Volcano Wolf on neighboring Isobela Island who shared Pinta ancestry. Although this individual had a mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) haplotype much like a different subspecies, Geochelone hoodensi, analysis of ten nuclear microsatellite loci showed strong G. abingdoni ancestry and assigned the individual to the Pinta population.

So all hope may not be lost for the giant tortoise of Pinta Island. There may be descendants still living in the mixed population of Isobela Island. Perhaps poor Lonesome George wasn’t as all alone as we supposed.

Reference

  1.  Russello, M. A., et al. (2007) Lonesome George is not alone among Galápagos tortoises. Curr. Biol. 17, R317–18.
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Kelly Grooms

Scientific Communications Specialist at Promega Corporation
Kelly earned her B.S. in Genetics from Iowa State University in Ames, IA. Prior to coming to Promega, she worked for biotech companies in San Diego and Madison. Kelly lives just outside Madison with her husband, son and daughter. Kelly collects hobbies including jewelry artistry, reading, writing, photography and knitting. She would like to be an avid runner, as evidenced by her growing collection of running gear and her single half-marathon finishers t-shirt.

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