Lonesome George Unveiled in New York City

Lonesome George, the famous Galápagos tortoise that was the last of his kind when he died in 2012, is due to get some company.

Lonesome George is shown with a female in an undated photograph. Photograph by Joel Sartore, National Geographic Creative

A taxidermic mount of George was recently put on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. When he was alive, George lived in Ecuador’s Galápagos National Park.

Visitors can gaze at the 5-foot-long (1.5 meters) reptile until January 4, when he returns to Ecuador. (Related: “Lonesome George to Be Stuffed, Displayed at NYC Museum.”)

“People from around the world know Lonesome George’s story—it resonates deeply within us that human action consigned him to his lonesomeness,” Eleanor Sterling, chief conservation scientist for the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the museum, said in an email to National Geographic.

The Galápagos Islands were originally inhabited by thousands of giant tortoises from 15 subspecies. But in the 1800s and 1900s, sailors and pirates used the Pacific Ocean archipelago as a pit stop, hunting huge numbers of giant tortoises for food and oil. (Watch a video about the Galápagos Islands.)

Though hunting has ceased, introduced species such as pigs and goats continue to overgraze some of the islands, munching through the remaining tortoises’ habitats.

“The Galápagos National Park Directorate chose to honor his iconic status by preserving the physical specimen that is emblematic of both the loss of an individual and an entire species,” Sterling said.

George the Bachelor

Perhaps best known for his apparent aversion to female tortoises—hence his nickname—George was the last known individual of his subspecies, Geochelone nigra abingdoni, also called the Pinta Island tortoise or Abingdon Island tortoise.

Among the longest-lived animals, giant tortoises can survive well past a hundred, with the oldest recorded at 152. (Watch a video of Galápagos tortoises.)

With George’s passing, the islands today house just ten tortoise subspecies, most of which are very rare. In fact, George’s subspecies was thought extinct until he was found on Pinta Island in 1971.

The lone male was taken into captivity with high hopes that he would take a liking to a female tortoise of close genetic makeup and continue his lineage, at least in hybrid form. (Related: “Mating Turtles Fossilized in the Act.”)

No such luck. After sharing his home for more than three decades with four different females, George failed to fertilize any of their eggs.

Bringing George to Life

In a sense, though, George will live on in his preserved state.

Taxidermy experts with the company Wildlife Preservations have worked with various teams for two years to re-create George as he looked in life—down to the missing toenail on his left front foot.

“The precise posture is based on carefully selected reference images,” the museum’s herpetology department curator Christopher Raxworthy said in a statement.

“The shell and skin colorations have been calibrated using reference soil samples, and messy green plant stains have been added to Lonesome George’s beak and chin, exactly as he had after enjoying every meal.”

Experts hope that people who see George will be inspired to protect endangered species.

“His story,” Sterling said, “reminds us of our responsibility as stewards of the environment.”

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Meet the Author
Christine Dell'Amore, environment writer/editor for National Geographic News, has reported from six continents, including Antarctica. She has also written for Smithsonian magazine and the Washington Post. Christine holds a masters degree in journalism with a specialty in environmental reporting from the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her book, South Pole, was published in 2012.