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.

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How to think about the EU result if you voted Remain

A belief in democracy means accepting the crowd is wiser than you are as an individual. 

I voted Remain, I feel sick about this result and its implications for what’s to come. But I’m a believer in democracy. This post is about how to reconcile those two things (it’s a bit unstructured because I’m working it out as I go, and I’m not sure I agree with all of it).

Democracy isn’t just fairer than other systems of governance, it’s smarter. It leads to better decisions and better outcomes, on average and over the long run, than countries that are run by autocrats or councils of wise men with jobs for life. It is simply the best way we have yet devised of solving complex problems involving many people. On that topic, if you’re not averse to some rather dense and technical prose, read this post or seek out this book. But the central argument is that democracy is the best way of harnessing ‘cognitive diversity’ — bringing to bear many different perspectives on a problem, each of which are very partial in themselves, but add up to something more than any one wise person.

I don’t think you can truly be a believer in democracy unless you accept that the people, collectively, are smarter than you are. That’s hard. It’s easy to say you believe in the popular will, right up until the popular will does something REALLY STUPID. The hard thing is not just to ‘accept the result’ but to accept that the majority who voted for that result know or understand something better than you. But they do. You are just one person, after all, and try as you might to expand your perspective with reading (and some try harder than others) you can’t see everything. So if a vote goes against you, you need to reflect on the possibility you got it wrong in some way. If I look at the results of past general elections and referendums, for instance, I now see they were all pretty much the right calls, including those where I voted the other way.

One way to think about the vote is that it has forced a slightly more equitable distribution of anxiety and alienation upon the country. After Thursday, I feel more insecure about my future, and that of my family. I also feel like a foreigner in my own country — that there’s this whole massive swathe of people out there who don’t think like me at all and probably don’t like me. I feel like a big decision about my life has been imposed on me by nameless people out there. But of course, this is exactly how many of those very people have been feeling for years, and at a much higher level of intensity. Democracy forces us to try on each other’s clothes. I could have carried on quite happily ignoring the unhappiness of much of the country but I can’t ignore this.

I’m seeing a lot of people on Twitter and in the press bemoaning how ill-informed people were, talking about a ‘post-factual democracy’. Well, maybe, though I think that requires further investigation - democracy has always been a dirty dishonest business. But surely the great thing about Thursday that so many people voted — including many, many people who might have felt disenfranchised from a system that hasn’t been serving them well. I’m not sure you’re truly a democrat if you don’t take at least a tiny bit of delight in seeing people so far from the centres of power tipping the polity upside down and giving it a shake. Would it have been better or worse for the country if Remain had won because only informed middle-class people voted? It might have felt better for people like me, it might actually have been better, economically, for everyone. But it would have indicated a deeper rot in our democracy than do the problems with our national information environment (which I accept are real).

I’m not quite saying ‘the people are always right’ — at least, I don’t think it was wrong to vote to stay in the EU. I still believe we should have Remained and I’m worried about what we’ve got ourselves into by getting out. But I am saying they may have been right to use this opportunity — the only one they were given — to send an unignorable signal to the powers-that-be that things aren’t working. You might say general elections are the place for that, but our particular system isn’t suited to change things on which there is a broad consensus between the two main parties.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.