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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Battle of the banners: how the disputes of football took to the skies

Across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST.

Last weekend, during the West Brom-Arsenal game, I began to think my hearing was playing up again. I’ve been given hearing aids but don’t wear them. No, not vanity, it’s just a faff to put the things in and the quality of my life, which is excellent, is not being impaired. Anyway, as I live on my own, if the sound on the telly is too low, I put it up. No one knows or cares.

When I’m out entertaining lady friends at my local bistro, I always get a quiet table in the corner and sit facing them, all rapt attention, totally focused on them, so they think. It’s really just to help my hearing.

On the TV screen, I suddenly heard an aeroplane, which was weird, as there was no sign of it, but then hearing problems are weird. Children talking sounds deafening. Some consonants disappear. Could it be a helicopter on the Heath, taking some injured person to the Royal Free? At our Lakeland house, I often heard helicopters: the mountain rescue team, picking up someone who had collapsed on Grasmoor. So I do know what they sound like. But this sounded like Biggles.

Then across the top of the screen floated a banner, pulled by a little aeroplane: IN ARSENE WE TRUST. The score at the time was 1-1, Arsenal having just equalised. They eventually got beaten 3-1. Oh, the shame and irony.

Apparently, earlier in the game, according to newspaper reports the next day, there had been an anti-Wenger aeroplane banner: NO CONTRACT, WENGER OUT. I didn’t see it – or Sky TV didn’t show it.

Where do the fans or supporter groups get all the money? And how do they organise it? There is a theory that IN ARSENE WE TRUST was paid for by Arsène himself. Another, more amusing theory is that it was a group of Spurs supporters, desperate for Arsène to stay on at Arsenal and continue getting stuffed.

There have been a few similar aeroplane banners at football matches in recent years. There was one at Newcastle, when they were playing Sunderland, which read 5 IN A ROW 5UNDERLAND. Sunderland won, so it came true. Sent the Geordie fans potty.

Everton fans flew one in 2015 which read KENWRIGHT & CO TIME TO GO. He is still chairman, so it didn’t work.

Millwall fans did an awfully complicated one in 2011 at Wigan, during the Wigan-West Ham game, which resulted in West Ham going down. They hired a plane to fly overhead with the banner AVRAM GRANT – MILLWALL LEGEND. Now you have to know that Grant was the West Ham manager and Millwall are their rivals. And that they couldn’t fly it at West Ham itself, which could have caused most fury to West Ham fans. There’s a no-fly zone in London, which stops rival fans hiring planes to take the piss out of Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham. The Millwall supporters who organised it later revealed that it had only cost them £650. Quite cheap, for a good laugh.

There’s presumably some light aeroplane firm that specialises in flying banners over football grounds.

I do remember a few years ago, at White Hart Lane and Highbury, walking to the grounds and looking out for blimps flying overhead – small, balloon-like airships mainly used for promotional purposes, such as Goodyear tyres or Sky’s aerial camera. The results were pretty useless, showing little. I haven’t seen any recently, so presumably blimps aren’t allowed over central London either.

I am surprised drones have not been used, illegally, of course, to display obscene messages during games. They could drag a few pithy words while on the way to drop drugs at Pentonville Prison.

The history of aeroplane advertising goes back a long way. Before the Second World War, Littlewoods and Vernons football pools were fighting it out for dominance, just as the online betting firms are doing today. In 1935, Littlewoods sent planes over London pulling banners that proclaimed LITTLEWOODS ABOVE ALL. Jolly witty, huh. 

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution