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No Lovin' for Lonesome George

He's about 70 or 80 years old, and he's been alone for at least the last 30 years. Friends have tried to set him up with dates. But no girl seems to be right for him.

His name is Lonesome George, and scientists believe he is the last of his subspecies, Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni, a giant tortoise found only on the Galápagos island of Pinta.

Living in captivity since 1971, Lonesome George doesn't show much interest in his female pen mates.

Photograph courtesy of National Geographic Channel

Found in 1971, George is now living at the Charles Darwin Research Station, on Santa Cruz with other giant tortoises in the station's captive breeding program. Researchers keep George with two female giant tortoises in hopes that he will pass on some of his genes even if this would be to a hybrid offspring.

So far they've had no luck. Since entering captivity, George has not produced any young. It is hard to say if he is even interested in trying, said Erica Buck of the Charles Darwin Foundation.

"They call him Lonesome George for a reason," said Buck. "He is in his corral with two other female tortoises, but he doesn't really show any interest in them. He mostly hangs out by himself."

Why So Lonesome?

In the 19th century, whalers and sealers hunted giant tortoises for their meat and oil, taking advantage of the fact that they could be kept in the holds of the ship for up to a year without food or water. Females were usually taken first because they were smaller and easier to find in the lowland areas during the egg-laying season.

In the 1950s fishermen released goats to the island of Pinta as an alternative food source. The goats competed with the tortoises for much of the island's vegetation, depleting the food source and causing erosion.

In 1971 National Galápagos Park Service wardens were hunting goats on Pinta when they came across a single male tortoise, who later became known as George.

Before finding George, the last known sighting of a Pinta turtle was in 1906 when the California Academy of Sciences visited the island and took three males.

Finding a Match

Last winter, an independent group of scientists performed a DNA test on George, said Buck. The scientists determined that George's closest relatives are found on islands far from his home island of Pinta, whereas, tortoises on closer islands are more distantly related.

If no match is found for George it is likely that when he dies, the Geochelone elephantopus abingdoni subspecies will be lost forever. Scientists can only hope that a Pinta tortoise or other suitable mate can be found to interest George in propagating his lineage.

Today scientists are trying to keep George sexually active in the hope a mate is found. George's diet and health are monitored to ensure there are no deficiencies that would cause him to be infertile.

Scientists note that it is often difficult to find smaller, younger tortoises because they can hide easily. If there were Pinta tortoises left in the wild at the time rangers took George, the aged tortoises would now be easier to find, leading scientists to hope that they may yet find George a mate.

"Since tortoises are estimated to live about 150 to 200 years, George could be still considered a young buck," said Buck.

Researchers also pondered the idea of cloning George and manipulating his genes to create a female Pinta tortoise. While this is theoretically possible, the cloning process would be very difficult and is considered a last-ditch effort.

"The search for a mate [for George] will continue until he dies," said Buck.

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More Information
•  Lonesome George is named after the U.S. actor George Goebel, who called himself "Lonesome George" in a television program.

•  George is about 70 to 80 years old.

•  He weighs about 88 kilograms (190 pounds).

•  The length of his shell is 102 centimeters (40 inches).

•  George is fed 500 grams (20 ounces) of papaya fruit five times per week, 50 grams (2 ounces) of grass three times a week and once a week he is fed 100 grams (4 ounces) of a special balanced diet.

•  Three of the 14 subspecies of giant tortoise that evolved on the Galápagos Islands are now extinct.