A gal for George, the world’s loneliest tortoise?

Long-lived, lonely: The tragic fate of Lonesome George

George has seen a lot in his life. He was born sometime between 80 and 200 years ago, so what exactly he’s seen remains speculative. What we do know is that in 1971, some goat herders spotted George on the island of Pinta in the Galapagos, and George’s life changed significantly. Researchers rushed to the site to find the tortoise. The reason for the rush? They thought George was the very last of his subspecies, the lone denizen of Pinta, a survivor of the combined adverse effects of whalers and goats in the Galapagos.

George’s people+goats problem

Probably within George’s memory—if he could form such memories—whalers arrived at the Galapagos islands and decimated tortoise populations by eating the animals, whose abundant meat proved irresistible to the protein-starved mariners. With the people came the goats, and the goats proceeded to eat their way through everything on Pinta that the tortoises like to eat, too, destroying all of the tortoise’s nesting sites in the process. By the 1970s, biologists were pretty sure that there were no longer any Geochelone nigra abingdonii, George’s subspecies, living on the island. Then George popped up his wrinkled head just as the goatherders were walking by.

George elicits some bizarre human behavior, ignores tortoise females

The people took George to a tortoise sanctuary, where they attempted to introduce him to the joys of female companionship. Because George was alone, species-wise, they selected a couple of females from a closely related subspecies, Geochelone nigra becki, who hailed from Wolf Island, part of the Galapagos island chain. There, George lived with the females for 30 years with nary a leering glance at them, much less successful mating. One frustrated researcher went so far as to join George in his pen, where she covered herself in eau d’ female tortoise, excretions from the female that presumably carried male-attracting pheromones. During her time with George, the male tortoise appeared to have a sort of sexual awakening, showing a bit of interest and exhibiting signs of sexual activity. The researcher even confirmed that George was indeed male and that everything appeared to be functioning normally.

Then, her research period at the sanctuary ended, and George lost his trainer in the romantic arts. Bachelor and celibate, his claim to fame remained that he was the world’s loneliest animal. He even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the rarest creature on Earth. His sobriquet became Lonesome George, and thousands of people came to view him at his island sanctuary. Over time, he has had his trials: a caretaker who let him eat too much, periodic overindulgence in cactus—a tortoise delicacy—that led to constipation, and a fall that almost killed him. But still, no mating.

Will George find his Ms. Right?

Then, a group of researchers tackled the job of drawing blood from tortoises on the nearby island of Isabela, where a different subspecies of tortoise lives. They performed microsatellite DNA analysis on the blood, a type of analysis that produces a DNA fingerprint that can be used to characterize a species. To their surprise, they found a tortoise among their samples who appeared to be half-George. The male tortoise had a microsatellite DNA pattern that was a 50% match for George, meaning that somewhere on the island of Isabela, a possibly-female G. n. abindonii lurked and, apparently, mated.

Now the search is on for the individual who may blow George’s place in the record books but also be the last hope for their mutual species to persist on the planet. If the tortoise is female, researchers hope to introduce her to George, possibly awakening his long-dormant libido. Meanwhile, George’s former island home of Pinta could be a tortoise Eden for the pair: the goats are gone and much of the vegetation has returned to its original ecological state. If they can find George a mate, he may very well cease to be Lonesome George and become his species’ Adam, partner to the as-yet-unidentified Eve.

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Can animals sense disaster?

Animals head for the hills when natural disaster looms

People living and working in national parks where the devastating 2006 tsunami hit made a startling observation within a few days of the disaster. They had found no animal carcasses of any kind. It appeared that animals had somehow managed to avoid the killer waves that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of people.

In Yala National Park in Sri Lanka, people flying over the area in helicopters observed horrible devastation—uprooted trees, cars upended, cars in trees—everywhere the waves had roared over the 391-square mile preserve. But one thing they didn’t see were the bodies of dead animals. The park is home to Asian elephants, crocodiles, buffalo, monkeys, and leopards, and every animal appeared to have made for the hills before the waves swamped their habitat.

Some turtle carcasses have washed ashore, but they seem to be the only notable wildlife deaths in the region. At an elephant trekking center in Thailand, two elephants named Poker and Thandung suddenly went nuts, broke their chains, and headed for the hills, carrying four lucky Japanese tourists on their backs. The elephants and the tourists survived the waters that flooded over the area five minutes after the elephants broke free.

A long history of doom-detection

A long, but anecdotal, history of animals’ ability to sense doom underscores the observations from this most recent tragedy. As far back as about 400 B.C., we noted unusual animal activity just preceding a natural disaster. The Greek historian Diodorus observed in 383 B.C. that two days before a destructive earthquake, the rats, snakes, weasels and even worms had decamped from the affected city. Worms—dwelling in the ground and possibly well-equipped with underground sensors—also figured in a mass animal exodus recorded prior to the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon, Portugal, the worst natural disaster on record prior to the recent Asian tsunami.

Dogs bark, geese honk, livestock get bull-headed. In the big Alaskan earthquake of 1964, a rancher could not get his cows to stay in the lowland pastures; the stubborn bovines insisted on grazing in the hills. Later that day, a huge earthquake hit, triggering a tsunami that wiped out coastal Alaskan towns, but the cows survived on their hillsides.

Are humans missing a vital organ?

Animals appear to know something’s coming possibly because they have what one researcher has described as sensory organs to detect tiny changes leading up to a big event. We, unrefined creatures that we are, do not detect these micro-changes and live in ignorance until the disaster hits. But proving that animals have something we don’t in this regard is a bit difficult because we can’t recreate earthquakes or tsunamis in the lab. Sure, we could shake a table or wash water over a false beach, but it’s the signals leading up to the events that we strive to understand. Since we cannot detect them, we don’t know what they are, and we can’t re-create them.

Our only chance of gaining some experimental insight into this phenomenon is to rely, as so many scientists do, on solid preparation for sheer chance. A marine biologist on the U.S. east coast has done just that, and in the process has become the first scientist to acquire actual proof that animals respond to impending disaster.

Sharks reveal a bit of the secret

The biologist, Michelle Heupel, had been radiotagging sharks off the coast of Florida when Tropical Storm Gabrielle approached. Six hours before the storm made landfall, all 14 sharks she was monitoring suddenly evacuated their nursery site. She and others believe that the sharks registered the drop in barometric pressure that preceded the storm. The drop made depths feel shallower, and the sharks instinctively swam en masse for deeper waters. Heupel got another chance to monitor this movement when Hurricane Charley swept onto the east coast. Again, the sharks she was monitoring all rapidly exited the area hours before the storm moved in.

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