The last of the giant tortoises living on La Pinta, a small island in the Galapagos, has died. Conservation icon Lonesome George was approximately a hundred years old, and the only remaining member of his subspecies. From Reuters via HuffPo: Lonesome George was found in 1972 and had become a symbol of Ecuador's Galapagos Islands, which attracted some 180,000 visitors last year. "This morning the park ranger in charge of looking after the tortoises found Lonesome George, his body was motionless," the head of the Galapagos National Park, Edwin Naula, told Reuters. "His life cycle came to an end." ... The giant Galapagos tortoises, which can live up to 200 years old, were among the species that helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution in the 19th century. The Galapagos National Park is considering embalming George's body so that it can be displayed in the park, Naula said... Scientists had been trying to get George to mate since 1993, when they introduced two female tortoises of a different subspecies into his pen. They laid eggs twice, but they were infertile. (Did nobody consider extracting George's semen when he was in his prime and saving it for just such an occasion? Perhaps they'll at least harvest George's DNA for cloning.)
Not long ago, I read a fascinating book about endangered species called Last Chance To See, written by Douglas Adams (of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame) and Mark Carwardine. Although the book was originally published back in 1990, it's as fresh and timely in the 21st century as genetically modified blackberries. As they hop across the globe in search of animals which will soon be lost to us, Adams and Carwardine mix sharp observations with some whimsical humor.
The chapter "Heartbeats In The Night" deals with a species of flightless parrots found in New Zealand. Fewer than 150 are currently living in the wild. The Kakapo (eerily reminiscent of the Dodo, hunted to extinction in the late 1800s) is flightless because it never had to deal with predators. It's also alarmingly heavy, probably for the same reason.
From Last Chance To See:
"Until relatively recently - in the evolutionary scale of things - the wildlife of New Zealand consisted of almost nothing but birds... No dogs, no cats, no ferrets or weasels, nothing that the birds needed to escape from particularly. And flight, of course, is a means of escape. It's a survival mechanism, and one that the birds of New Zealand found they didn't especially need. Flying is hard work and consumes a lot of energy. Not only that, there's a trade-off between flying and eating. The more you eat, the harder it is to fly. So increasingly, what happened was that instead of just having a light snack and then flying off, the birds would settle in for rather a larger meal and go for a waddle afterward instead. When eventually European settlers arrived and brought cats and dogs and stoats and possums with them, a lot of New Zealand's flightless birds were suddenly waddling for their lives.
"Of these the Kakapo is the strangest... If you look one in its large, round greeny-brown face, it has a gaze of innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be all right, though you know it probably will not be. It is an extremely fat bird (and) its wings are just about good for waggling a bit if it thinks it's about to trip over something - but flying is out of the question. Sadly, it seems that not only has the Kakapo forgotten how to fly, but it has also forgotten that it has forgotten how to fly. Apparently, a seriously worried Kakapo will sometimes run up a tree and jump out of it, whereupon it drops like a brick and lands in a graceless heap on the ground."
There there, poor sweet baby. Everything will be all right.