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The saga of Lonesome George, my St. Valentine’s Day hero

Sometimes the road to romance is long. When I was a teen I dreaded St. Valentine’s day, as I knew I wouldn’t get a Valentine from a girl. There were plenty of girls around, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea how to approach one, and lacked the courage to myself send a valentine to a girl I didn’t know. Those few painful years seemed at the time to drag on for an eternity. Eventually I did figure out how to meet a girl, and I have looked forward to St. Valentine’s day since. But I haven’t forgotten that lonely time.

So on this St. Valentine’s day my heart went out to Lonesome George -- 77 years old and weighing over 200 pounds. Shy, George only had one girl. She died 55 years ago. On this St. Valentine’s day George is alone.

Profoundly alone. George, a giant Galapagos tortoise, is the last of his subspecies, Geochelone elephantophus abingdoni. He lives on the tiny isolated island of Pinta, one of the Galapagos Islands. Far out in the Pacific, 800 miles off the coast of South America, these giant tortoises have evolved in isolation from a single Ecuador migrant, eventually diversifying into 15 different subspecies.
Hunted by whalers as a source of fresh meat, their habitat destroyed by feral goats abandoned on the islands, the giant tortoises of the Galapagos have declined in modern times. Only 11 subspecies survive. If George doesn’t find a mate, the number will fall to 10.

Just as my parents tried to help by introducing me to the daughters of their friends, so conservationists keen to preserve George’s heritage have paired him up with a series of eligible lady giant tortoises from nearby Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos archipelago. The ladies are a different subspecies, of course, but because they lived nearby it was hoped the Isabela females would be closely enough related to Lonesome George be acceptable.

Nope. My parents’ efforts to find me a girl never worked, and neither have the efforts of Lonesome George’s matchmakers. He just doesn’t seem interested in Isabela females, however many are presented to him as potential “dates.”

Enter Professor Jeffrey Powell, an evolutionary biologist from Yale University. I have known Jeff for thirty years, and he has always had a knack for asking just the right question. “How do we know the nearby Isabela tortoises are Lonesome George’s closest relatives?” Jeff asked. Distances between islands can be deceiving, he pointed out, as sailors often carried the tortoises from one island to another. Perhaps Lonesome George’s closest relatives live on some more distant island.

In order to find out, Powell and a team of researchers collected DNA samples from Lonesome George and more than 100 other individuals living on near and far islands. To obtain DNA samples, researchers had to roll the huge beasts, which can weigh up to 650 pounds, onto their backs so that blood could be drawn.

The DNA, when analyzed, revealed the secret of why George was lonesome. The lady tortoises from nearby Isabela are not at all closely related to Lonesome George. From his perspective, the researchers surmised, the females were too strange to be attractive.

The DNA also sings a song of hope. Lonesome George does have closely-related female relatives -- they just don’t live nearby. On San Cristobal and Espanola islands, 200 miles away at the other end of the archipelago, live female giant tortoises so closely related to Lonesome George the researchers thought they might be the same subspecies

Was George born on one of these two islands and transported by sailors as a child to his home on Pinta? To test this possibility, Powell’s team studied DNA from skins of stuffed tortoises collected on Pinta in 1906. The DNA was found to be identical to Lonesome George’s. George is indeed native to Pinta, truly the last survivor of his lineage.

So on this St. Valentine’s day, efforts are underway to introduce George to females from San Cristobal and Espanola. Because they are quite closely related to him, “differentness” should not be a problem, and the researchers are hopeful.

There is, of course, another possibility. Perhaps George just misses his mate. 55 years is a long time, but maybe broken hearts don’t mend quickly in Galapagos tortoises. These huge reptiles live for 150 to 200 years. If George’s loneliness is caused not by a lack of love, but rather by an abundance of it, my heart goes out to him. There will be many St. Valentine’s days ahead for Lonesome George. On every one of them, I will think of him.

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