The Last Pinta Island Tortoise

"Lonesome George" the Tortoise Died on June 24, 2012

Close-Up Of Giant Tortoise
Marcus Versteeg / EyeEm / Getty Images

The last known member of the Pinta Island tortoise subspecies (Chelonoidis nigra abingdonii) died on June 24, 2012. Known as "Lonesome George" by his keepers at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galápagos Island of Santa Cruz, this giant tortoise was estimated to be 100 years old. Weighing 200 pounds and measuring 5 feet in length, George was a healthy representative of his kind, but repeated attempts to breed him with biologically similar female tortoises proved unsuccessful.

Scientists at the research station plan to save tissue samples and DNA from George's body in hopes of reproducing his genetic material in the future. For now, though, Lonesome George will be preserved via taxidermy to be displayed at the Galápagos National Park.

The now-extinct Pinta Island tortoise resembled other members of the Galapagos giant tortoise species (Chelonoidis nigra), which is the largest living species of tortoise and one of the heaviest living reptiles in the world. 

Characteristics of the Pinta Island Tortoise

Appearance: Like others of its subspecies, the Pinta Island tortoise has a dark brownish-gray saddleback-shaped shell with large, bony plates on its upper portion and thick, stumpy limbs covered in scaly skin. The Pinta Island has a long neck and toothless mouth shaped much like a beak, suitable for its vegetarian diet.

Size: Individuals of this subspecies were known to reach 400 pounds, 6 feet in length, and 5 feet in height (with necks fully extended). 

Habitat: Like other saddleback tortoises, the Pinta Island sub species primarily inhabited arid lowlands but likely made seasonal migrations to more moist areas at higher elevations. Its primary habitat though would be that of the Ecuadorian Pinta Island from which it gets its name. 

Diet: The Pinta Island tortoise's diet consisted of vegetation, including grasses, leaves, cacti, lichens, and berries. It could go for long periods without drinking water (up to 18 months) and is thought to have stored water in its bladder and pericardium.

Reproduction: Galápagos giant tortoises reach sexual maturity between 20 and 25 years of age. During the height of mating season between February and June of each year, females travel to sandy coastlines where they dig nest holes for their eggs (saddlebacks like Pinta tortoises typically dig 4 to 5 nests a year with an average of 6 eggs each). The females retain sperm from a single copulation to fertilize all of her eggs. Depending upon temperature, incubation can span anywhere from 3 to 8 months. Like other reptiles (notably crocodiles), nest temperatures determine the sex of hatchlings (warmer nests result in more females). Hatching and emergency occur between December and April.

Lifespan/; Like other subspecies of Galápagos giant tortoises, the Pinta Island tortoise can live up to 150 years in the wild. The oldest known tortoise was Harriet, who was approximately 175 years old when she died at an Australia Zoo in 2006.

Geographic Range/; The Pinta Island tortoise was indigenous to Ecuador's Pinta Island. All subspecies of the Galápagos giant tortoise are found only in the Galápagos Archipelago. According to a study released by Cell Press entitled "Lonesome George is not alone among Galapagos tortoises," there may still be a Pinta Island turtle living among a similar subspecies on the neighboring island of Isabela. 

Causes of Population Decline and Extinction of Pinta Island Tortoises 

During the 19th century, whalers and fishermen killed Pinta Island tortoises for food, driving the subspecies to the brink of extinction by the mid-1900s.

After exhausting the tortoise population, seasonal seafarers introduced goats to Pinta in 1959 to ensure they would have a food source upon landing. The goat population grew to more than 40,000 during the 1960s and 1970s, decimating the island's vegetation, which was the remaining tortoises' food.

Pinta tortoises were originally considered extinct during this time until visitors spotted Lonesome George in 1971. George was taken into captivity the following year. Following his death in 2012, the Pinta Island tortoise is now considered to be extinct (other subspecies of Galápagos tortoise are listed as "Vulnerable" by the IUCN).

Conservation Efforts

Starting in the 1970s, varied techniques were employed to eradicate Pinta Island's goat population in order to discover the most effective method for later use on larger Galápagos islands. After almost 30 years of only moderately successful extermination attempts, an intensive program of radio-collaring and aerial hunting aided by GPS and GIS technology resulted in complete eradication of goats from Pinta.

Monitoring projects have since shown that Pinta's native vegetation has recovered in the absence of goats, but the vegetation requires grazing to keep the ecosystem properly balanced, so the Galápagos Conservancy launched Project Pinta, a multi-phase effort to introduce tortoises from other islands to Pinta.

How You Can Help Other Giant Tortoises 

Donate to the Lonesome George Memorial Fund, established by the Galápagos Conservancy to fund large-scale tortoise restoration programs in Galápagos over the next 10 years. There are also a variety of resources for volunteering to help endangered species available online.