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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Relax – there’s new evidence that mindfulness actually works

The relaxation therapy could prevent relapses in sufferers of depression, according to a new study.

If there’s one thing that can be said of buzzwords, it’s that they almost always fall by the wayside in the end. Yet in the field of mental health, one buzzword has survived the best efforts of critics and naysayers – “mindfulness”.

First coined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the term mindfulness was initially characterised as a state of mind that would enable someone to pay “attention on purpose” to the present moment. Modern secular society seems to have embraced it as a form of meditation. Everything from exercise to breathing now has an associated mindfulness manual attached.

However, not everyone is convinced. For example, the recent phenomenon of adult colouring books – devised to promote mindfulness and serve as a form of therapeutic escapism – has been criticised by therapists as over-hyped and not necessarily helpful.

Meanwhile, sceptics have pointed out an alleged bias in the publishing of positive findings from trials using mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. Researchers at McGill University in Canada “found that scientists reported positive findings 60 per cent more often than is statistically likely” after analysing 124 different published trials involving mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. In some cases, the practice has even had a reverse effect, inducing anxiety, pain or panic.

However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry seems to demonstrate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be a potent treatment in preventing and managing relapse into major depression. Led by the University of Oxford, the study’s researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis (an analysis of various different studies) to date on the therapy’s impact on recurrent depression.

The particular form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that was used aimed to equip patients with the skills required to successfully recognise and repel the thoughts and feelings they most commonly associated with the state of depression, in order to prevent any future relapse.

According to the study, “the MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises. Participants receiving MBCT typically attended eight 2-2.5 hour group sessions alongside daily home practice.”

Using anonymous patient data from nine randomised trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 per cent of those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a depressive relapse, in comparison to 49 per cent of patients who didn’t receive treatment. The patient data covered age, sex and level of education – key inclusions, as the meta-analysis was able to show no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.

The most prominent form of remedy currently available for mental health patients is anti-depressant medication. Four of the nine randomised trials comparatively assessed the impact of therapy alongside medication, to deduce if a combination of therapy with varying doses of medication was more beneficial than medication alone. The patients from the study who received mindfulness therapy along with continued, reduced or discontinued medication were less likely to fall back into depression than patients on maintenance anti-depressants alone. This helps legitimise mindfulness as an option in combating depression’s debilitating effects and reinforces its efficacy, whether it is taken up with or without anti-depressants.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and lead author of the study, called the results “very heartening”. “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

“It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

Though the findings will certainly reinvigorate confidence in mindfulness, Richard Byng from the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said, “clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."