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The photo I took of a tortoise on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos in 2004. — Photo by Pat Bean

“The tortoise only moves forward by sticking his neck out. I think it’s the same with humans.” – Pat Bean

I Met the Two Famous Ones

            There was a story about Diego in the New York Times this week that brought back memories of my 2004 trip to the Galapagos Islands. Diego is a tortoise that was taken from Espanola Island to the San Diego Zoo sometime in the 1930s. He belongs to the species of giant tortoises scientifically known as Chelonoidis hoodensis, or more commonly the Espanola tortoises.

Diego, the 100-year-old tortoise who has helped bring his species back from the brink of extinction.

There were originally 15 tortoise species in the Galapagos, but five of them are now extinct, with the last of the five dying out with the death of Lonesome George in 2012. I got to see both George and Diego at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island during the week that I spent cruising from island to island in a 16-passenger catamaran. Both of the tortoises stories fascinated me.

Lonesome George’s because he was the last of his species, and Diego, who had been brought back to the Galapagos in 1977 to help his species avoid extinction. At that time, there were only a dozen of his species known to still be alive, and while 10 of those were females, the two males were too young, too inexperienced, or too stand-offish to mate with them.

Diego’s male macho instincts on being returned to the Galapagos solved that problem. By some estimates, Diego, who is now 100 years old, has fathered over 800 tortoise babies.

Lonesome George before his death in 2012, He was the last of his tortoise species.

The Galapagos tortoises, which can weigh up to 900 pounds or so, have shells of various sizes and shapes. The ones living on humid highland islands are larger with domed shells and short necks. On islands with dry lowlands, the tortoises are smaller with long necks. Darwin noted these differences during his second visit to the islands in 1835, and they most likely, along with his observation of finches, helped him contemplate the theory of evolution.

As stories go, Diego’s is the one I like best. While the demise of the tortoises from about 250,000 in the 16th century to only about 3,000 in the 1970s is primarily due to the fact that humans think they tasted good, it was humans who also helped bring their numbers back up. Currently, there are about 20,000 tortoises in the wild – and Diego, who is scheduled to be released back on Santa Cruz Island will be one of them.

Blog pick of the Day. Check it out.

Bean Pat: My Botanical Garden http://tinyurl.com/jbswvwm I love the thought behind this blog. It’s sort of like my desire to always look for that silver lining, like the fact there are more tortoises in the world today than there were 50 years ago.

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