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.

Getty Images.
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Emmanuel Macron's French election victory may change less than most expect

The centrist is not the first to succeed from outside the traditional parties in the Fifth Republic.

Emmanuel Macron has won the first round of the French presidential election, and will face Marine Le Pen in the run-off.

The numbers that matter: Emmanuel Macron 24 per cent, Le Pen 21 per cent, François Fillon 19.9 per cent, Jean Luc Mélenchon 19.9 per cent and Benoît Hamon 6.3 per cent.

According to the polls - which came within 0.9 per cent of the correct result in the first round - Macron will easily defeat Marine Le Pen in the second round.

The single transferable take that compares Macron to Hillary Clinton and Le Pen to Trump ignores a few things. Not least his programme, the different electoral system and the fact that Macron is popular - the most popular politician in France, in fact. Jean Luc Mélenchon declined to back a candidate in the second round and will poll his supporters on who his leftist bloc should back. But it's not comparable to the feud between Bernie Sanders and Clinton - which, in any case, was overwritten. Most Sanders supporters backed Clinton in November. The big story of that election was that the American mainstream right backed Donald Trump despite his manifold faults.

The French mainstream right is a very different beast. Fillon has already thrown his weight behind Macron, warning against the "violence" and "intolerance" of the National Front and the "economic chaos" its programme would inflict. And to the extent that it matters, Hamon has also endorsed his former party colleague, saying that there is a difference between a "political adversary and an enemy of the Republic."

So, if he wins, has everything changed, changed utterly? That's the line in most of the papers this morning, but I'm not so sure. French politics has always been more fissiparous than elsewhere, with parties conjured up to facilitate runs for the Presidency, such as the Democratic Movement of perennial candidate, now Macron backer François Bayrou, and Mélenchon's own Left Party.

I'm dubious, too, about the idea that Macron is the first to succeed from outside the traditional centre-right and centre-left blocs in the history of the Fifth Republic. That honour surely goes to Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, a popular finance minister in a Gaullist administration, who ran on a independent centrist platform in 1974 - and won the presidency.

Giscard d'Estaing had no majority in the National Assembly and had to "cohabit" with his former colleagues on the Gaullist right. In the long run, far from upending the left-right pattern of French politics, he continued it. (Indeed, d'Estaing is now a member of the centre-right Republican Party.)

You don't have to look hard to see the parallels with Macron, a popular finance minister in a Socialist administration, running on an independent centrist platform and very likely to win, too.

France's underreported and under-polled legislative elections in June will give us an idea of the scale of the change and how lasting it may be. If, freed from the taint of Fillon's scandals, the French Republicans can win the legislative elections then talk of the "death of the traditional centre-right" is going to look very silly indeed.

Equally, while Hamon won the presidential nomination, the Socialist Party's legislative candidates are largely drawn from the party's right. If En Marche!, Macron's new party, can go from no seats at all to the largest group but are short of a majority their natural allies in getting through Macron's programme will be from the remains of the Socialists. Far from irrevocably changing the pattern of French politics, Macron's remarkable success may simply mark a period of transition in the life of the French Left.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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