Lonesome George has relatives

Lonesome George might be have passed away but he’s still making the news. Less than six months after his death, with his carapace still interred in a Galapagos freezer, it appears he may not have been the last of his kind after all. There is now clear evidence of giant tortoises with Pinta ancestry on another island in the archipelago.

In a forthcoming study, geneticists from Yale University identify 17 hybrid tortoises with various combinations of Pinta genes on the nearby island of Isabela. The existence of these Pinta-like tortoises came to light by chance when an initial sample of 27 tortoises from Isabela’s northernmost volcano Wolf turned up a youthful male with some unusual genes. This animal – officially dubbed PBR03 –appeared to be a first generation hybrid between a full-blown Pinta male and an Isabela female. “Lonesome George is not alone among Galapagos tortoises”, the geneticists reported in Current Biology back in 2007. Since then, they have worked hard to expand on this initial finding.

Within a couple of years, they were able to return to Isabela, the Galapagos National Park mounting a huge expedition to extract blood from as many of Wolf Volcano’s tortoises as possible. The geneticists came away with samples from more than 1660 tortoises. Earlier this year, the Yale team demonstrated that some of these tortoises had signs of Floreana ancestry, another species thought to have disappeared in the mid-19th century. In Table S1, buried in the supplemental information for the paper, they reported a cluster of seven tortoises with a strong affinity to the Pinta species.

The forthcoming paper, due to be published in Biological Conservation, extends this number to 17 individuals. Four of these look like they are first generation hybrids (F1), with one or other of their parents being of full Pinta stock. The rest seem to be second-generation (F2) hybrids. Several of the Pinta-like tortoises appear to be siblings, which seems reasonable for a species that lays clutches of up to 20 eggs at a time. Given that the sampling may only have captured around 1/5th of the tortoises roaming on Wolf Voclano’s inhospitable flanks, the geneticists extrapolate to estimate there could be some 60 to 70 Chelonoidis abingdoni hybrids yet to be discovered. As five of the 17 tortoises are juveniles less than 20-years-old, it is also possible that there is still a purebred Pinta tortoise out there and breeding. If there are, however, the geneticists have not yet stumbled upon them. The hybrids they have come across are only known from their blood. The actual animals still roam free. But there is a plan afoot to go and get them.

“Our goal is to go back this spring to look for surviving individuals of this species and to collect hybrids,” says Adalgisa “Gisella” Caccone, senior author on the study, in a Yale University press release. “We hope that with a selective breeding program, we can reintroduce this tortoise species to its native home.” Interestingly, the 17 hybrids are not randomly distributed but are most concentrated on the southwestern flanks of the volcano. The proximity of this location to Bank’s Cove – a popular watering hole for whalers and sealers – leads the authors to speculate that humans were responsible for the introduction of Pinta tortoises to Isabela some time during the last few centuries.

As incredible as this sounds, the alternative – that the tortoises got there by natural means – is less likely still. Although the islands are just 37 miles apart, any tortoise entering the sea from Pinta would be carried away from Isabela on prevailing northwesterly currents. Even if, by some freak means, a tortoise had floated southwest from Pinta to Isabela, its descendants would be located on the northern and not southwestern side of the volcano.

This important map should help the Galapagos National Park and Yale University geneticists as they attempt to relocate these hybrids for the purposes of captive breeding. I’d have liked to have seen George nonplus these relatives. That would have been entirely in keeping with his character. With his death on 24 June this year, this is a reunion that sadly can not take place.

Lonesome George and the late Lord Devon’s helmet

On Monday, when news of Lonesome George’s death began to reach editors around the world, I was asked to write his obituary for the Guardian. As I had already sent in one to Nature, they sensibly got the very excellent John Vidal to do it instead.

John’s done a pretty good job and he generously cites my book Lonesome George: The Life and Loves of a Conservation Icon. I was, however, very puzzled to read that I’d reported that “George was irresistibly attracted to the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet, presumably because it resembled the shell of a young tortoise.” I’ve never reported anything of the sort.

What I think has happened here is that in researching his piece Vidal came across a rather lovely article about Lonesome George and my book that appeared in the Daily Mail in 2007. It is particularly nice because it’s by Rory Knight Bruce, who declares his interest in tortoises as the author of Timothy The Tortoise: The Remarkable Story Of The Nation’s Oldest Pet. His book, Bruce explains, “recounts the life and times of the tortoise who lived at Powderham Castle, the family seat of the Earls of Devon, until his death in 2004 at the grand old age of 164.” The Daily Mail article draws on the similarities between the reptilian subjects of our respective testudinate biographies and his last sentence notes that Timothy, like George, did not mate “unless you accept his attempts to mount the late Lord Devon’s wartime helmet.”

I understand that this kind of mistake is inevitable in a busy news room, though I am a little puzzled Vidal was not himself more puzzled that the late Lord Devon’s helmet should have found its way over to Galapagos and into Lonesome George’s enclosure. I thought about emailing the Guardian to get it corrected. Then I thought it’s such an irrelevant detail I wouldn’t bother. But here’s what happens in the internet age if you don’t get stuff like this put right. It gets picked up, replicated and in the replication acquires a new life, gravitas and authority.

I think I’d better let the Guardian know.

The death of Lonesome George

A team of vets, technicians and scientists has just carried out an autopsy on Lonesome George’s cold corpse. The early signs, according to a press release just issued by the Galapagos National Park, are that he suffered a cardiac arrest some time on Sunday morning. His posture suggests he was walking.

I am guessing that the postmortem will not tell us much more about the cause of death. In all of the thousands of news stories that have covered Lonesome George’s passing, including in a short obituary I wrote for the Nature blog, you’ll read that George was thought to be around 100 years old. But I now think he was a lot older than this and had simply come to the end of a long and rather peculiar life.

When I wrote my book on Lonesome George, I wondered whether it was possible to study the growth of a tortoise’s shell and work out its age in much the same way as one does with the rings of a tree. I’m clearly not alone in imagining this might be possible, as Simon Levey made a similar suggestion to me after the ABSW awards at the Royal Society last night. I discovered that it is possible to ring-age a tortoise but only when it’s very young. Once it’s adult, which for giant tortoises is at around 30, the shell stops growing so there are no more rings. When George was discovered in December 1971 he was already an adult so we know he was 30 or more. But tortoise experts, looking at his relatively unblemished, moss-free shell figured he was still young, perhaps only 50 or 60. Adding on the 40 years that have passed since then, brings him to 90 or 100.

It sounds plausible and I went with this in my book. But I’ve always had a niggling concern about it. In museums around the world there are probably a dozen specimens of the Pinta tortoise, the type specimens at the Natural History Museum in London, a few more at Tring, several at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. and three at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. All of these are males, with the exception of one specimen collected in 1901 that is either a juvenile or a female. In 2003, an expedition to Pinta organized by the Galapagos National Park carried out an extremely thorough search for tortoises. They found 15, or more properly their bleached bones and weathered scutes, which was all that remained of them. Again, all but one was male. The small pelvis of specimen 14 (which together with a limb bone was all that was left) suggests it belonged to a female. Perhaps this was Lonesome George’s mother and she laid her last clutch in around 1910.

But perhaps not. There were so few, if any, females on Pinta in the 20th century, that it seems more likely to me that the last clutch – the one from which the young George emerged – was laid much earlier and George just took good care of his shell. If, for the sake of a simple sum, George hatched out in 1862, he’d have been 110 when he was captured and transferred to Santa Cruz in 1972 and 150 when he died on Sunday. Not only would this scenario help explain his death, as 150 is about as old as the oldest giant tortoise we know of, but might also account for his reticence to reproduce. We know nothing about the mating habits of senior tortoises. Perhaps they just don’t do it.

Whatever the postmortem reveals, the Galapagos National Park is clearly aware of Lonesome George’s special role as communicator extraordinaire. According to the press release, he is going to be “embalmed” and put on show “so that future generations know him” in a new center named that will carry his name. Perhaps someone took note of the closing remarks of my book:

…there’s no reason why Lonesome George should not outlive us all, acting as a focus for Galápagos conservation for generations to come. I hope so. I like the thought that when my son grows up, I will take him to the Galápagos and introduce him to George.

It all depends on what happens in the archipelago in the next few years. The pace of social change is alarming and does not bode well for the future of the islands’ unique suite of species. Let’s hope the Special Law can tame the population expansion. Tourism in the Galápagos Islands currently generates at least $150 million a year. If more of this can be fed back into a sustainable future, then yes my son may yet see the same pristine, enchanting world I saw. That Darwin saw.

One day, of course, George will give up the tortoise ghost. Even then, he will be of immense value to the Galápagos. His remains should not be taken back to his native island. Nor should they be flown to Quito to act as a centrepiece in the Museo Ecuatoriano de Ciencias Naturales. Lonesome George must remain in the archipelago, at the research station on Santa Cruz. By then, this is where he will have spent most of his life; this is the place that Lonesome George would call home.

Even in death, it is here that he will have his greatest audience. I, for one, would like to see him again – alive or dead. I feel I’m just about getting to know this tortoise, and I like him.

Whilst I’m sorry of course that my son will never have the chance to see George in life, I am pleased the Galapagos National Park is thinking of ways to keep his powerful narrative alive. I am, however, a little concerned about this talk of embalming. I am guessing that many Europeans and North Americans (who make up a significant proportion of visitors to Galapagos) will find the idea of stuffing George all very 20th century and more than a little distasteful. Such was the case for other celebrity animals, like Guy the Gorilla (stuffed, after much controversy, in 1982) and Ham the Astrochimp (not stuffed but given a full-blown funeral, burial and headstone). As you can see from the photograph above, taxidermy is not a great look for a giant tortoise.

More powerful, I think, would be Lonesome George’s shell on a plinth. Empty.

How have conservation brands evolved?

I have an opinion article in today’s Nature that I’m quite pleased with. It’s called “The art of conservation”, which could make it the first time that a title I proposed at pitch has not mutated en route to publication.

I have been thinking about conservation imagery for many years, making a brief survey of it in my first book Lonesome George and again in The Way of the Panda. With the Worldwide Fund for Nature’s panda logo 50 years old in July (almost certainly 16 July if you want to be precise), it seemed a good moment to reflect on the way that this and other conservation logos have evolved through time. It is a journey that I argue tells us quite a lot about changes in conservation practice. You can read the full article online to get the detailed argument, but here’s a précis.

Conservation brands have gone from being homespun, anatomically accurate, single-species creations to being stylized, abstract, frequently global images. This is a direct reflection of the conservation movement’s journey from a single- to a multi-species focus, with organizations increasingly operating at the level of habitats, ecosystems and the globe. It also embraces the increasing reliance on design and advertising agencies.

Conservation International’s new logo is perhaps the best illustration of this evolutionary process. It was launched in September 2010; you can read the press release – New Logo for a New Mission – here. It was created by Sagi Haviv, partner at the New York graphic design agency Chermayeff & Geismar; it is stylised; it incorporates a globe; and it has an abstract human figure thrown in for good measure. Mr Haviv kindly took the time to answer a series of (probably quite annoying) questions and I have posted the full transcript of the interview here.

I had great fun with this article and inspired by Ed Yong’s brilliant stem cell timeline (which on www.dipity.com has clocked up more than 300,000 views in a couple of months), I have produced one to accompany my Nature opinion piece (see above). I don’t imagine for a moment it’ll get anywhere near 1000th this attention but I enjoyed playing with this great site. I have only covered a minute selection of all possible conservation artwork and freely admit to a British- and US-centric bias, so if you work for (or are a member of) a conservation organization that I did not cover please feel free to add to the timeline; I think I have set it so anyone can add a new “event”.

Naturally (as it would support my overall thesis) I’d be very interested to have further examples of amateurish, biologically faithful logos from the 1950s and ’60s, the involvement of professional designers from the ’70s and ’80s, the appearance of human elements from the mid-1980s onwards and the incorporation of global motifs from 2000ish. In particular, it’s really interesting to see how logos changed over time within one organization.

In addition, exceptions – and there are plenty of them I’m sure – can also be instructive. WWF’s panda is one of them. Though it has undergone three stylistic mutations since Sir Peter Scott’s 1961 original, it remains rather old-school in its single-species design, with no explicit attempt to bring humans into the picture or to acknowledge the global extent of the conservation problem. But, I argue, it didn’t need to. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, which prevented WWF from becoming involved with pandas until 1980, meant the charity – and its image – never fell into the trap of being type-cast in a species-specific role but was able to become established as a truly global symbol big enough to embrace the entire conservation movement at every step of its evolution.

Cameroon’s Gagarin: the afterlife of Ham the Astrochimp

Specimen 1871496 (aka Ham the Chimp) at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine.

In February 2007, journalists descended upon the the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. in the wake of Washington Post allegations of mind-boggling bureaucracy, cockroachy conditions and substandard treatment of injured war heroes. Later that year, I stood outside the very same Medical Center on a bright November morning and, as I approached the security gates, I was distinctly uneasy. The massively framed, heavily armed guards, I was sure, would not take well to the appearance of a journalist bearing a notepad , camera, minidisc and microphone. If they asked me the purpose of my visit, how ridiculous would I sound if I told them I had come to see a space chimp? I envisaged myself being frogmarched off to some deep, dark Guantanamo hell-hole from which I might never return.

“I am here to see Brian Spatola at the National Museum of Health and Medicine,” I told the burly guard. He flipped through my passport, looked me up and down and gestured me through with his M4 Carbine rifle. I was in, though this encounter and the abundance of marching berets I passed set me on a jittery edge for a good quarter of an hour. I felt well out of place.

So too, perhaps, did Ham the Astrochimp (or the remains of him) that I had come to see. As I wrote in my last post on Ham’s life story, he was born in the French Cameroons, flown to the US to take part in experiments into space flight and selected (over and above 14 other chimp contenders) for the first primate flight out of the earth’s atmosphere. His successful mission 50 years ago on 31 January 1961 meant he beat Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and paved the way for US astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May 1961 and all US manned flights that were to follow.

But how was it that Ham’s remains wound up embedded deep within this military compound? The answer is that he and his fellow chimps had been purchased by the Air Force and remained their property for the rest of their lives. When Ham died at North Carolina Zoo on 17 January 1983 at the age of just 26 (equivalent to somewhere between 50 and 60 in human years), he was delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), which is located within the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

On the morning of the 19 January 1983 pathologists from the AFIP and the National Zoological Park (where he had been housed from 1963 to 1980) carried out a postmortem. This suggested he had died of chronic heart failure and liver disease rather than from any strange consequence of his brief foray into space. During the procedure, care was taken to keep his skin in good condition so it could be stuffed and displayed in the National Air and Space Museum. News of this plan reached the public on 26 January. “Pioneer space chimp to be stuffed,” blurted the Washington Times. “The Smithsonian will arrange for the chimp’s taxidermy,” reported the Washington Post.

This caused something of a stir. “Taxidermy is the wrong stuff” ran a rhetorical leader in the following day’s Washington Post. It’s a darling little piece, so I hope they won’t mind me reproducing an extended chunk here:

Talk about death without dignity. Talk about dreadful precedents – it should be enough to make any space veteran more than a little nervous about he is going to be treated in the posthumous by and by.

Rest assured that we’re not looking for full honors at Arlington here. We know that Ham was a chimp. We certainly don’t want to offend our Creationist readers – at least, not any more than we always do. But stuffing and display? The only national heroes we can think of who are stuffed and on permanent display are V.I. Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. Does this nation really want to emulate the Soviet and Chinese models? There is not one shred of evidence that Ham was a Communist….

How about treating America’s First Ape with a little respect? Bury Ham.

The public was outraged. A sophomore at West High School in Painted Post, New York, for example, responded with a passionate plea to the National Zoo (which she cced to the Air and Space Museum, the AFIP and the Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo). Her letter, filed away at the Smithsonian Archives, reveals that she was “shocked and horrified” at the proposal to stuff Ham. “A chimpanzee is not a green pepper!” she wrote.

By treating his body like that of a stupid beast, people will continue thinking of apes as stupid beasts, and not the intelligent, almost human animals they really are. In my opinion, a gravestone would honor Ham’s life much better than would having his body filled with sawdust and stuck under a glass case for countless years to gather dust.

By the time she got a reply from Lieutenant Colonel George D. Imes, then director of the Department of Veterinary Pathology at the AFIP, there had been a change of thinking. “You will be happy to learn that following our initial decision, the question was reconsidered and it was decided not to stuff and display him as originally planned,” he wrote. Imes did also note, however, that “Because of the scientific value his skeleton will be maintained here at the Institute with the skeleton of Able, a famous space monkey.”

So that’s what happened. After the postmortem, Ham’s skin and viscera were cremated and sent to be buried in the International Space Hall of Fame at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. According to the book Animals in Space, the museum’s Ryita Price wrote to the astronaut Alan Shepard (who made NASA’s first manned suborbital flight a few months after Ham) and invited him to the 28 March ceremony.

I don’t know if you’re an animal lover or not – or how much you feel our space program owes the primates who first proved man could survive in space. I do know that you had to cope with a lot of jokes and sometimes ‘unfunny ’ humor about the situation. And, perhaps, now would be a good time to give a timely and dignified response to these innuendoes and, at the same time, create some goodwill for the United States space program.

Shepard, it seems, didn’t think so, preferring to appear on “only a handful of occasions in the interests of other pursuits.” From this, the authors of Animals in Space make a carefully worded speculation. “It is possible that he still begrudged Ham for preventing him from becoming the first person in space,” they wrote. It’s possible, I guess, but then so, I’m told, is anything.

Ham’s grave at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.

Whilst Ham’s cremated organs went on one last flight to be interred beneath a bronze plaque in New Mexico, his fleshy skeleton was sent across Washington D.C. to be cleaned up by a colony of dermestid beetles at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. “Dermestid beatles [sic] are finicky, preferring dried as opposed to fresh tissue,” noted Dwight Schmidt, then head of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). So Ham’s skeleton spent around a week in a drying chamber before each bone was carefully tagged and introduced to the meat-eating beetles.

At the end of April, Ham’s bones were removed from the dermestid chamber, chilled so as to kill off any pupae or larvae, and soaked in ammonia to replace one bad odour with something (only slightly) less offensive. Then they were driven back to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and carefully arranged in a drawer at the NMHM under accession number 1,871,496.

Which brings me to roughly where I began this post, walking past soldiers towards my appointment with Brian Spatola, curator at the NMHM. When he opened the Ham’s drawer, I’d set a minidisc running and have put an edited version of our conversation on Audioboo. I’m so sorry about the telephone in the background. I couldn’t record elsewhere as I wanted to be beside the chimp and the darn phone just wouldn’t stop ringing.

Spatola pointed out the remains of dermestid pupae lodged in bits of Ham’s skeleton and also the remains of casting wax on his pelvis. In 1998, forensic anthropologist Diane France took away Ham’s pelvic girdle to make a cast of it. The “Agreement for Outgoing Loan” lists the insurance value for the two inominates and one sacrum as $30,000, that’s $10,000 per bone. As a result of France’s efforts, you can now buy a reproduction of Ham’s pelvis (#PR009F) for $149 (not $160 as I incorrectly state on this week’s Guardian Science Weekly Podcast in which I rather irreverently tell of Ham’s life and afterlife).

I did send an email to Dr France to find out why she was interested in Ham’s pelvis rather than a more obvious piece of his anatomy like his skull.. She didn’t reply, but here’s a possibility. The “Object Examination Report” filed when France returned Ham’s pelvis to the NMHM “in good condition” mentions that the top section of his sacrum “is not completely fused”. It’s unlikely that France was interested in the celebrity status of these bones, but was focused instead on capturing an anatomical quirk.

At roughly the same time, someone somewhere in Hollywood was casting Ham in an altogether different role, as the inspiration for the plot in the 2001 movie Race to Space.

Ham’s story is also told (through cartoonised footage) in the 2008 kids’ film Fly Me to the Moon. As far as historical accuracy in Hollywood movies goes, this otherwise silly movie (in which three flies join Armstrong, Aldrin and the other one on board Apollo 11)  is rather impressive.

Then, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Ham’s existence is central to the plot of the 2008 film Space Chimps in which his fictional grandson (presumably descended from fictional offspring Ham sired with the North Carolina Zoo chimp Maggie in the last few years of his life) heads off into space with a couple of chimp mates. Their mission: to save a distant planet from an evil dictator called Zartog.

For a chimp or indeed for a human, Ham had a pretty startling life. Because he moved more in the human than in the animal world and we have done things with his remains and his image, he now has an impressive afterlife too.