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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Theresa May defies the right by maintaining 0.7% aid pledge

The Prime Minister offers rare continuity with David Cameron but vows to re-examine how the money is spent. 

From the moment Theresa May became Prime Minister, there was speculation that she would abandon the UK's 0.7 per cent aid pledge. She appointed Priti Patel, a previous opponent of the target, as International Development Secretary and repeatedly refused to extend the commitment beyond this parliament. When an early general election was called, the assumption was that 0.7 per cent would not make the manifesto.

But at a campaign event in her Maidenhead constituency, May announced that it would. "Let’s be clear – the 0.7 per cent commitment remains, and will remain," she said in response to a question from the Daily Telegraph's Kate McCann. But she added: "What we need to do, though, is to look at how that money will be spent, and make sure that we are able to spend that money in the most effective way." May has left open the possibility that the UK could abandon the OECD definition of aid and potentially reclassify defence spending for this purpose.

Yet by maintaining the 0.7 per cent pledge, May has faced down her party's right and title such as the Sun and the Daily Mail. On grammar schools, climate change and Brexit, Tory MPs have cheered the Prime Minister's stances but she has now upheld a key component of David Cameron's legacy. George Osborne was one of the first to praise May's decision, tweeting: "Recommitment to 0.7% aid target very welcome. Morally right, strengthens UK influence & was key to creating modern compassionate Conservatives".

A Conservative aide told me that the announcement reflected May's personal commitment to international development, pointing to her recent speech to International Development staff. 

But another Cameron-era target - the state pension "triple lock" - appears less secure. Asked whether the government would continue to raise pensions every year, May pointed to the Tories' record, rather than making any future commitment. The triple lock, which ensures pensions rise in line with average earnings, CPI inflation or by 2.5 per cent (whichever is highest), has long been regarded by some Conservatives as unaffordable. 

Meanwhile, Philip Hammond has hinted that the Tories' "tax lock", which bars increases in income tax, VAT and National Insurance, could be similarly dropped. He said: "I’m a Conservative. I have no ideological desire to to raise taxes. But we need to manage the economy sensibly and sustainably. We need to get the fiscal accounts back into shape.

"It was self evidently clear that the commitments that were made in the 2015 manifesto did and do today constrain the ability to manage the economy flexibly."

May's short speech to workers at a GlaxoSmithKline factory was most notable for her emphasis that "the result is not certain" (the same message delivered by Jeremy Corbyn yesterday). As I reported on Wednesday, the Tories fear that the belief that Labour cannot win could reduce their lead as voters conclude there is no need to turn out. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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