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On Sunday June 25th, 2012, Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, best known for its giant tortoises had some sad news to report - its most famous bachelor, a tortoise nicknamed 'Lonesome George' was found dead by its keeper of 40 years. What makes the death even more poignant is the fact that he was the last known living member of the Pinta Island giant tortoise subspecies.
Believed to be 100 years old, the sole surviving member of the subspecies was discovered and brought into captivity in 1971. Dubbed as the rarest creature on earth, George soon became a powerful symbol of the importance of conservation. The moniker lonesome was added to his name because despite various efforts to get him to produce an offspring, the tortoise showed very little interest in mating.
In fact, the only time he did it in the 36 years he was in captivity, was about ten years ago. Unfortunately, the five eggs that ensued were infertile and the bachelor never showed any interest in his female companions again.
While autopsy results showed that George had succumbed to old-age, giant tortoises can live up to 200 years. Had this giant lived that long, scientists would have had some more time to save the subspecies from extinction. However, George's untimely death is not going to be in vain. The park officials are planning to preserve his body so that future generations are constantly reminded to what could happen if we ignore endangered animals.
Native to seven of the several volcanic islands that make up the Galapagos Island arch, the Galapagos giant tortoise is the largest living species of its kind and the 10th heaviest living reptile in the world. While all of them are huge, the size and shape of the tortoises vary depending on the island they reside on. Those that live in the humid regions are generally larger and feature Domed shells and shorter necks. The ones residing in the drier areas are smaller, have Saddleback shaped shells and longer necks. In fact it was these differences that inspired Charles Darwin's 1859 theory of evolution by natural selection.
The islands that were named after the giants (Galapagos means tortoise in Spanish) by the Spanish settlers that first came to the area, was once a paradise for the reptiles. However, things changed when the new residents began hunting them down in earnest for meat and oil. To make matters worse, they introduced 'alien' animals like goats that changed the ecosystem completely, leading to even more deaths.
By the 1970's the population of these mighty giants had shrunk from over 250,000 to 3,000. Fortunately, conservationists stepped up in time. Today, about 20,000 tortoise roam the islands freely, and while the Pinta giant tortoise subspecies may be gone forever, others will hopefully continue to thrive, for many generations to come.
Resources: telegraph.co.uk, wikipedia.org,bbc.co.uk.