Lonesome George, famous Galápagos tortoise, to be preserved: why he's a symbol

Lonesome George, who died last year, will be displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York this winter. Experts hope the exhibit will spread awareness about species extinction.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
The remains of Lonesome George, a Galápagos tortoise who died in 2012, are to be put on display in New York City. George is thought to have been the last surviving member of his species.

The body of Lonesome George, a century-old giant tortoise believed to be the last of its species, is being prepared for temporary display at a New York City museum this winter.

The tortoise, named after the late television comedian George Gobel, was discovered in 1971 on Pinta Island in the Galápagos Islands. The tortoise somehow survived the eradication of its kin by whalers seeking food and by goats, which destroyed its habitat following their introduction to the area in 1959. He survived by dining on his staple food, island cactus.

George died in June 2012, and a cause of death has not been recorded. He was considered middle-aged, as tortoises are known to live for up to 200 years.

The American Museum of Natural History announced this week that it recently received George’s body and that throughout the summer and fall, it will be retrofitted for display.

“We are honored to receive this incredibly important specimen and ultimately, put it on display for the public,” Michael Novacek, senior vice president and provost of science at the museum, said in a statement. “Our team of experts, using preservation and taxidermy techniques that have earned this institution recognition throughout the world, will ensure the legacy of Lonesome George lives on and is appreciated by future generations.”

The effort to transport George to New York was not easy. Funding of about $30,000 came from a partnership between the museum; the Galapagos National Park in Ecuador; the Galapagos Conservancy in Fairfax, Va.; Yale University in New Haven, Conn.; and the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF) in Syracuse.

Reconstruction of the tortoise is intended to spread awareness of the tragedy of species extinction, says James Gibbs, a SUNY-ESF professor. Following the exhibition in New York, George will eventually be shipped back to the Galápagos Islands for permanent display.

“Moving a frozen, 200-pound tortoise from Galapagos to New York is a major logistical challenge and something of a headache. But I was really moved by the remarkable effort expended by so many people – park guards, agriculture inspectors, customs agents, colleagues and more – who took extra care in preparing and handling this sensitive, precious cargo,” Dr. Gibbs said in a prepared statement.

“This tortoise means so much to so many. That Ecuadorian children and future travelers to Galapagos will have the chance to gaze upon Lonesome George and think about the meaning of species extinction makes this effort worthwhile,” he added.

Conservationists had tried breeding George with two female tortoises on a nearby island that contained some Pinta tortoise genes, but they were unsuccessful. Eventually, George was moved to the Tortoise Breeding and Rearing Center in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island. There, he became a popular attraction due to his weight (200 pounds) and dimensions (five feet long) that made him look somewhat prehistoric.

After his arrival at the museum in March, taxidermists began preparing to fit him into an eternal state: on his feet, with a raised neck.

"Doing taxidermy on a tortoise is much like working on an elephant,” George Dante, the lead taxidermist on the project, told National Geographic Tuesday. “There's no fur, so we have to work to preserve the skin, maintaining its natural color and texture as much as possible, sculpting the wrinkles so they are anatomically accurate. There's very little room for error.” The project is expected to take up to seven months to complete.

“What George is as a symbol shouldn’t be forgotten,” Linda Cayot, science adviser to the Galapagos Conservancy, told The New York Times Monday. “And the best way of doing that is having him there in front of everyone.”

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