Why Lonesome George should get stuffed (or pickled)

Embalming him will be worth the effort for the insights we get into his species.

When I heard about the demise of the last living Pinta Island Giant Tortoise, Lonesome George, my first thoughts went to his preservation. Apparently he is to be ‘embalmed’ for posterity, which I heartily approve of, depending on the methods used. Ideally, tissue samples should be collected and archived in tissue banks such as the Frozen Zoo prior to embalming, since formaldehyde breaks down DNA. The preserved specimen should then be stored in a properly curated collection to ensure appropriate long term care (pdf).

But why go to all this effort? Besides the cultural importance of preserving this iconic animal, George’s anatomy and genetics can tell us a lot. He was the last of a subspecies that was part of a ‘species complex’ – a group of around fifteen closely related, yet distinct, types of Giant Galapagos Tortoise.
This group of tortoises has been important for scientists interested in evolution and biogeography, including a young Charles Darwin, who observed (and indeed ate) them in 1835 when the Beagle visited the Galapagos Archipelago. The tortoises varied in shape to better suit the vegetation on the different islands that they inhabited, something that contributed strongly to Darwin’s ideas on evolution.

Since then our understanding of speciation has been greatly improved by studies carried out on these long-lived giants. Genetics and geology have combined to give us a picture of the changing shape of the volcanic islands that make up the Galapagos and the corresponding changes in the Giant Tortoise genome (pdf) and anatomy as they responded to changing habitats.

Human impact has also been substantial, as the Tortoises have historically provided a convenient resource for sailors. Crews would gather hundreds of the animals for food and ballast, sometimes dumping them on different islands, where they hybridised. Tortoises were even used as a source of oil for lamps, to the point where an oil refinery was established on the island of Floreana to process them.

In his 1835 diary Darwin said: “…the numbers [of Giant Tortoise] have been much reduced; not many years since, the Ship's company of a Frigate brought down to the Beach in one day more than 200. .... Mr Lawson thinks there is yet left sufficient for 20 years…”. Mr. Lawson’s estimate turned out to be a little optimistic and the Floreana Giant Tortoise was probably extinct by 1850.

With tortoises being so abundant and so easy to collect, it is unsurprising that many eventually found their way into museum collections. While this may have been bad for the populations at the time, it may have a significant benefit for the future of the species complex, as studies carried out on museum material can help inform conservation activities.

In the words of a key researcher in the field, Dr Michael Russello of The University of British Columbia: “…much of our population genetic work associated with Lonesome George, specifically, and Chelonoidis abingdoni, generally, would not have been possible without specimens accessioned within natural history museum collections. The availability of vouchered specimens allowed us to reconstruct the genetic composition of the now extinct Giant Galapagos Tortoise once endemic to Pinta Island. Without access to a population-level sample afforded by museum collections, our group would not have been able to detect genetic signatures of extinct C. abingdoni and C. elephantopus on the neighbouring island of Isabela, work that has directly led to multiple expeditions and direct conservation action. An unfortunate aspect of the biodiversity crisis is that museum collections will likely become increasingly important in maintaining a source for study specimens and a repository for genetic resources of imperilled and extinct taxa.”

It is for these reasons that it is worth the effort of preserving Lonesome George and other species. Museum collections are not just about understanding the past, they are about protecting the future.

Paolo Viscardi is a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in Southeast London

 

Lonesome George, the last known individual of the Pinta Island Tortoise. Photograph: Getty Images

Paolo Viscardi is a natural history curator at the Horniman Museum in Southeast London.

Photo: Bulent Kilic/Getty Images
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We need to talk about the origins of the refugee crisis

Climate change, as much as Isis, is driving Europe's migrant crisis, says Barry Gardiner. 

Leaders get things wrong. Of course they do. They have imperfect information. They face competing political pressures. Ultimately they are human. The mark of a bad leader is not to make the wrong decision. It is to make no decision at all.

David Cameron’s paralysis over the unfolding human tragedy of Syrian refugees should haunt him for the rest of his natural life. At a time when political and moral leadership was most called for he has maintained the most cowardly silence. 

All summer, as Italy, Greece, Hungary and Macedonia have been trying to cope with the largest migration of people this continent has seen in 70 years, Downing Street has kept putting out spokespeople to claim the government is working harder than any other country “to solve the causes of the crisis” and that this justifies the UK’s refusal to take more than the 216 refugees it has so far admitted directly from Syria. The truth is it hasn’t and it doesn’t.

Anyone who truly wants to solve the causes of the nightmare that is Syria today must look beyond the vicious and repressive regime of Assad or the opportunistic barbarism of ISIL. They need to understand why it was that hundreds of thousands of ruined farmers from Al-Hasakeh, Deir Ezzor and AL-Raqqa in the northeast of that country flocked to the cities in search of government assistance in the first place - only to find it did not exist.

Back in 2010 just after David Cameron became Prime Minister, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation warned that, after the longest and most severe drought in Syria, since records began in 1900, 3 million Syrians were facing extreme poverty. In 2011 the International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report claiming that climate change “will increase the risks of resource shortages, mass migration and civil conflict”. These were some of the deep causes of the Syrian civil war just as they are the deep causes of the conflicts in Tunisia, South Sudan, Somalia, Libya and Egypt. So what about Cameron’s claim that his government has been working to solve them?

Two years after that Institute for Strategic Studies report pointed out that conflict as a result of  drought in countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia had already claimed 600,000 lives,  the parliamentary Committee on Arms Export Controls found the UK Government had issued more than 3,000 export licenses for military and intelligence equipment worth a total of £12.3bn to countries which were on its own official list for human rights abuses; including to Libya, Tunisia, Somalia, Sudan, Egypt and Syria. That was the same year that UK aid to Africa was cut by 7.4% to just £3.4billion. Working to solve the root causes? Or working to fuel the ongoing conflict?

A year later in 2014 home office minister, James Brokenshire told the House of Commons that the government would no longer provide support to the Mare Nostrum operation that was estimated to have saved the lives of more than 150,000 refugees in the Mediterranean, because it was providing what the government called a “pull factor”. He said: “The government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing, is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.”

In fact the ending of the rescue operation did not reduce the number of refugees. It was not after all a “pull factor” but the push factor – what was happening in Syria - that proved most important. Earlier this summer, David Cameron indicated that he believed the UK should consider joining the United States in the bombing campaign against Isis in Syria, yet we know that for every refugee fleeing persecution under Assad, or the murderous thuggery of ISIS, there is another fleeing the bombing of their city by the United States in its attempt to degrade ISIS.  The bombing of one’s home is a powerful push factor.

The UK has not even fulfilled Brokenshire’s promise to fight the people smugglers. The Financial Action Task Force has reported that human trafficking generates proportionately fewer Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) annually than other comparable crimes because the level of awareness is lower. Prosecuting the heads of the trafficking networks has not been a focus of government activity. Scarcely a dozen minor operatives pushing boats on the shores of Turkey have actually been arrested. But it is not the minnows that the UK government should be concentrating on. It is their bosses with a bank account in London where a series of remittances are coming in from money transfer businesses in Turkey or North Africa. Ministers should be putting real pressure on UK banks who should be registering SARs so the authorities can investigate and begin to prosecute the ultimate beneficiaries who are driving and orchestrating this human misery. They are not.

That image, which few of us will ever completely erase from our mind, will no doubt prompt David Cameron to make a renewed gesture. An extra million for refugee camps in Jordan, or perhaps a voluntary commitment to take a couple of thousand more refugees under a new European Quota scheme. But if the UK had been serious about tackling the causes of this crisis it had the opportunity in Addis Ababa in July this year at the Funding for Sustainable Development Conference. In fact it failed to bring forward new money for the very climate adaptation that could stem the flow of refugees. In Paris this December the world will try to reach agreement on combating the dangerous climate change that Syria and North Africa are already experiencing. Without agreement there, we in the rich world will have to get used to our trains being disrupted, our borders controls being breached and many more bodies being washed up on our beaches.