biodiversity conservation biology

Say Good-bye to Lonesome George

“Whatever happens to this single animal, let him always remind us that the fate of all living things on Earth is in human hands.”

Wording on information panel beside Lonesome George’s pen

            The last member of a species died this year. “Lonesome George” was the only Pinta tortoise left in the world.

Pinta is one of the Galapagos Islands. These islands are remote from the mainland of South America, and far enough from one another so animals cannot interbreed. Separation over eons of time caused the development of distinct species on each of the islands. Perhaps the best known are finches.

HMS Beagle, on which Charles Darwin was the naturalist, made a stop on the Galapagos in 1835. A careful observer, Darwin found that there were a variety of finches on the Galapagos archipelago. Each species had its own shaped beak, and the beaks were gradated from small to large. Beak size and shape varied by diet, which in turn was determined by the niche that the bird occupied. This range in size was a clue that lead Darwin to understand evolution.

The volcanic Galapagos are about 600 miles from the mainland of Ecuador and separated by up to 50 miles of open ocean from each other. If the islands were closer together, the birds could have easily flown from one to the other and interbred, and they probably would not have developed different niches and beaks. It is only a rare storm that carries the birds from one island to the next.

The Galapagos tortoises offer another example of speciation. They are huge, the largest weighing over 800 pounds and having shells 6 feet long. They eat plants, including cacti—up to 80 pounds a day!—and can live over 100 years. They have an interesting mutualism with some finches. The birds hop on the ground facing the tortoise, at which point the giant extends its neck and rises up on its legs. The birds will then groom the reptile.

These giant tortoises are not very good swimmers, which has contributed to developing at least ten different varieties with significant differences. Whether the variations are great enough to be considered different species or just subspecies (races) is not clear.

Galapagos males assert dominance over one another by seeing who can reach his head highest. A peaked shell differentiated the Pinta Island tortoise, allowing their necks to reach higher than other varieties.

`           The meat of these animals is reportedly tasty. Sailors collected them by the thousands in the 19th Century, then turned them upside down and kept them as living larders on board ship. The tortoises could last for more than a year without food or water. This careless harvesting probably killed off some varieties and has caused confusion for biologists who are trying to figure out what species lived where.

Goats were introduced to Pinta Island in 1958. They created havoc by eating much of the food that tortoises like, further jeopardizing the reptiles. It took years to eradicate these hungry mammals.

The last known Pinta Island tortoise was found in 1971 and taken to the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Islands, where he attracted tens of thousands of visitors. Nicknamed “Lonesome George”, he was already mature so there is no way of telling how old he was.

Several expeditions combed Pinta for other members of the species. They found several skeletons but no live animal, and no sign of an animal that might have been recently alive. Lonesome George was unique.

In an effort to preserve at least part of his genetic pedigree, females of other tortoise subspecies were introduced. Unfortunately, Lonesome George never took much of a liking to them and there were no offspring. There had been thoughts of trying to preserve his lineage in other ways such as in vitro fertilization, but that wasn’t practical.

Lonesome George was found dead on June 24th. His was the 802nd known species (or subspecies) to be driven extinct in the past 500 years; almost all these extinctions have had a human cause. The government of Ecuador had made every effort to protect George’s life and preserve the Pinta species. This effort was appropriate for the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature.

George was lucky in that he belonged to a species that was recognized as being at risk of extinction. Biologists suspect that thousands of species go extinct every year without ever being described, named or their loss even noticed.

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012


Celebrate this Centenarian

This column deserves a bit of an introduction. Occasionally I choose to write about one of the people I admire; we all need role models and heroes. Louise is one of those!

            Recently I went to an unusual birthday party, for a woman who turned 100 years old on the 12th of November. The party was held in advance of her real birthday because she wasn’t sure that she would live to be a centenarian. She is still very much alive, fortunately!

Louise Ireland-Frey is amazing. She still writes Letters to the Editor of the Herald, although some are too controversial for publication. She is totally competent mentally, walks without a cane, and has good sight and hearing (with hearing aids). Her voice is not strong, but that wasn’t a problem at her party because we were quiet, hanging on her every word.

I first met Louise when she attended Durango Friends (Quaker) Meeting. Meditation has been an important part of her life, and Quaker silence favors meditation.

Louise was born in Idaho, according to her autobiography, which she started writing in 2010 (when she was 98). I read a copy of the dozens of chapters that she emailed to a friend. When I asked her if she needed to refer to a diary or other sources for some of the myriad facts, she said that she did need to ask her sons about a couple of things, but most of the narrative came from her remarkable memory.

Her family moved to Colorado when she was little and she graduated from high school in Montrose. She won awards both for academic achievement and in music—she played cello, piano and pipe organ. Her memory has always been phenomenal. Her paternal grandfather lost both his hearing and his vision in his old age. As a protection against boredom if this happened to her, she memorized many poems to keep herself entertained in her dotage.

Louise attended college in Boulder, then earned a graduate degree at Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts. Studying zoology, she was sometimes called upon to treat animals in ways that she considered inhumane. She resolved this problem by being as kind as possible to her subjects.

Her next educational adventure was medical school at Tulane. She was one of just a handful of female students, and chauvinism was rampant. In addition she faced a cultural difference since she was a “Yankee”. Nevertheless, she fell in love with and married a local man, also a medical student, Charles Frey. Louise started suffering from an undiagnosed illness that sapped her strength. Now her ailment would be called “chronic fatigue syndrome”.

Louise and Charles did internships at Wichita Hospital, and then Charles left for three years of military service. Louise did what she could to help medically since there were few physicians left at home. Her energy was so limited that she saw patients for an hour then had to rest for an hour on an exam table. A year of this depleted her energy totally, so she closed her practice and went to her parents in Colorado Springs until her husband returned. The couple moved to the little town of Cedaredge, where they started a family.

As a child Louise had wanted four sons. She got her wish, with healthy, smart, active boys she kept in line with daily exercise and half an hour of practicing piano. She decided to use her limited energy to raise her sons rather than practice medicine. Occasionally she was called upon to use her clinical skills, such as when the town’s constable asked her to see a neighbor who had been in a car accident. Louise’s examination suggested that the woman had 3 or 4 painful, broken ribs. X-ray later proved her correct; there were four.

Years later her boys dragged her into the digital age. They bought her a computer and stipulated that she spend 30 minutes daily with it. Later came email and her autobiography.

During her long illness Louise used self-hypnosis to help her do the work that needed to be done. She was able to gain control over a body that often wanted to be inert. I think that this strength of character has helped her maintain her physical strength and clarity of mind.

Louise has published three books. Her magnum opus is The Blossom of Buddha, a 3-volume novel based on the life of the Buddha. She started research for this work in 1943 and it was finished in 2008—a 56 year gestation!

Louise’s autobiography is only half finished. I look forward to reading the other half, but in the meantime Louise has been a role model for me and many others whose lives she has touched

© Richard Grossman MD, 2012