Lonesome George, believed to be the last of his tortoise subspecies and likely a century old, died Sunday, according to news from the Galápagos National Park Service. Scientists there say that George likely died of cardiac arrest, though they are completing a necropsy to determine more specifics. “He was a very old tortoise,” says Washington Tapia, a GNPS researcher. “Maybe he completed his life cycle.”
Serious efforts were made to keep alive this species. For the past four decades, George remained in the Solitary Breeding Center. Back in 2009, Ted O’Callahan wrote for Audubon about the plan—and the animal’s love life.
The Galápagos giant tortoise, long thought to be the last of his species, has resided at the Galápagos’ Charles Darwin Research Station since 1972, and for the past 16 years he’s been shacking up with two females from closely related species. Though George is still in his sexual prime, there hadn’t been any sign of wooing until last year, when the ladies laid nine eggs. Those proved infertile, but this year there are five more.
Gisella Caccone, an evolutionary biologist at Yale University who’s part of the effort to bring George’s species back from the brink, says, “He is a symbol of all the animals and plants of the Galápagos.”
Sadly, the breeding plan didn’t work. More than a dozen subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoise once shared the island, according to a New Scientist article. “The differences between them were one of the inspirations for Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution,” it reads. With George’s death on Sunday, the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies is no more—bringing the number of lost tortoise species there to four.
Not all hope is lost, however; scientists, including Caccone, are working to sequence George’s DNA and find other animals that carry his species’ genes. And visitors to GNPS will still be able to see the tortoise with their own eyes: Following the necropsy and other necessary sampling, GNPS will embalm Lonesome George and display him in an eponymous turtle center “so that future generations know him.”