Thursday, 28 June 2012

Lonesome George and the late Lord Devon’s helmet

On Monday, when news of Lonesome George’s death began to reach editors around the world, I was asked to write his obituary for the Guardian. As I had already sent in one to Nature, they sensibly got the very excellent John Vidal to do it instead.

John’s done a pretty good job and he generously cites my book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon. I was, however, very puzzled to read that I’d reported that “George was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon's wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise.” I’ve never reported anything of the sort.

What I think has happened here is that in researching his piece Vidal came across a rather lovely article about Lonesome George and my book that appeared in the Daily Mail in 2007. It is particularly nice because it’s by Rory Knight Bruce, who declares his interest in tortoises as the author of Timothy The Tortoise: The Remarkable Story Of The Nation's Oldest Pet. His book, Bruce explains, “recounts the life and times of the tortoise who lived at Powderham Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Devon, until his death in 2004 at the grand old age of 164.” The Daily Mail article draws on the similarities between the reptilian subjects of our respective testudinate biographies and his last sentence notes that Timothy, like George, did not mate “unless you accept his attempts to mount the late Lord Devon's wartime helmet.”

I understand that this kind of mistake is inevitable in a busy news room, though I am a little puzzled Vidal was not himself more puzzled that the late Lord Devon's helmet should have found its way over to Galapagos and into Lonesome George's enclosure. I thought about emailing the Guardian to get it corrected. Then I thought it’s such an irrelevant detail I wouldn’t bother. But here’s what happens in the internet age if you don’t get stuff like this put right. It gets picked up, replicated and in the replication acquires a new life, gravitas and authority.

I think I'd better let the Guardian know. 

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The death of Lonesome George

Lonesome George as he was when I visited Galapagos in 2003.

A team of vets, technicians and scientists has just carried out an autopsy on Lonesome George's cold corpse. The early signs, according to a press release just issued by the Galapagos National Park, are that he suffered a cardiac arrest some time on Sunday morning. His posture suggests he was walking. 

I am guessing that the postmortem will not tell us much more about the cause of death. In all of the thousands of news stories that have covered Lonesome George's passing, including in a short obituary I wrote for the Nature blog, you'll read that George was thought to be around 100 years old. But I now think he was a lot older than this and had simply come to the end of a long and rather peculiar life. 

When I wrote my book on Lonesome George, I wondered whether it was possible to study the growth of a tortoise's shell and work out its age in much the same way as one does with the rings of a tree. I'm clearly not alone in imagining this might be possible, as Simon Levey made a similar suggestion to me after the ABSW awards at the Royal Society last night. I discovered that it is possible to ring-age a tortoise but only when it's very young. Once it's adult, which for giant tortoises is at around 30, the shell stops growing so there are no more rings. When George was discovered in December 1971 he was already an adult so we know he was 30 or more. But tortoise experts, looking at his relatively unblemished, moss-free shell figured he was still young, perhaps only 50 or 60. Adding on the 40 years that have passed since then, brings him to 90 or 100. 

Pinta tortoise at the Natural History Museum in London.

It sounds plausible and I went with this in my book. But I've always had a niggling concern about it. In museums around the world there are probably a dozen specimens of the Pinta tortoise, the type specimens at the Natural History Museum in London, a few more at Tring, several at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and three at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. All of these are males, with the exception of one specimen collected in 1901 that is either a juvenile or a female. In 2003, an expedition to Pinta organized by the Galapagos National Park carried out an extremely thorough search for tortoises. They found 15, or more properly their bleached bones and weathered scutes, which was all that remained of them. Again, all but one was male. The small pelvis of specimen 14 (which together with a limb bone was all that was left) suggests it belonged to a female. Perhaps this was Lonesome George's mother and she laid her last clutch in around 1910. 

But perhaps not. There were so few, if any, females on Pinta in the 20th century, that it seems more likely to me that the last clutch - the one from which the young George emerged - was laid much earlier and George just took good care of his shell. If, for the sake of a simple sum, George hatched out in 1862, he'd have been 110 when he was captured and transferred to Santa Cruz in 1972 and 150 when he died on Sunday. Not only would this scenario help explain his death, as 150 is about as old as the oldest giant tortoise we know of, but might also account for his reticence to reproduce. We know nothing about the mating habits of senior tortoises. Perhaps they just don't do it. 

Whatever the postmortem reveals, the Galapagos National Park is clearly aware of Lonesome George's special role as communicator extraordinaire. According to the press release, he is going to be "embalmed" and put on show "so that future generations know him" in a new center named that will carry his name. Perhaps someone took note of the closing remarks of my book:

...there’s no reason why Lonesome George should not outlive us all, acting as a focus for Galápagos conservation for generations to come. I hope so. I like the thought that when my son grows up, I will take him to the Galápagos and introduce him to George.

It all depends on what happens in the archipelago in the next few years. The pace of social change is alarming and does not bode well for the future of the islands’ unique suite of species. Let’s hope the Special Law can tame the population expansion. Tourism in the Galápagos Islands currently generates at least $150 million a year. If more of this can be fed back into a sustainable future, then yes my son may yet see the same pristine, enchanting world I saw. That Darwin saw.

One day, of course, George will give up the tortoise ghost. Even then, he will be of immense value to the Galápagos. His remains should not be taken back to his native island. Nor should they be flown to Quito to act as a centrepiece in the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales. Lonesome George must remain in the archipelago, at the research station on Santa Cruz. By then, this is where he will have spent most of his life; this is the place that Lonesome George would call home.

Even in death, it is here that he will have his greatest audience. I, for one, would like to see him again – alive or dead. I feel I’m just about getting to know this tortoise, and I like him.

Whilst I'm sorry of course that my son will never have the chance to see George in life, I am pleased the Galapagos National Park is thinking of ways to keep his powerful narrative alive. I am, however, a little concerned about this talk of embalming. I am guessing that many Europeans and North Americans (who make up a significant proportion of visitors to Galapagos) will find the idea of stuffing George all very 20th century and more than a little distasteful. Such was the case for other celebrity animals, like Guy the Gorilla (stuffed, after much controversy, in 1982) and Ham the Astrochimp (not stuffed but given a full-blown funeral, burial and headstone). As you can see from the photograph above, taxidermy is not a great look for a giant tortoise.

More powerful, I think, would be Lonesome George's shell on a plinth. Empty.