The Importance Of Subspecies or Why Lonesome George Was More Than Just A Sad News Item

As you may or may not know, the 24th of June 2012 saw the death of Lonesome George. George was the last surviving Pinta Island Tortoise, a subspecies of the Galapagos Tortoise (the world’s largest). The extinction of the rest of the Pinta Island Tortoise population was due to the award-winning combination of habitat destruction by an introduced species – in this case the Goat – and hunting. Obviously the passing of George is sad news, but what’s even sadder is that it’s not unique- only this time the final survivor had a name and we knew the exact extinction date. It’s not even the only subspecies of a major species to become extinct recently- only last year the Western Black Rhino was officially declared extinct. Obviously, due to the nature of evolution, species and subspecies come and go all the time. When they disappear because of Man, then that’s a travesty. I know there’s a school of thought that says Man is one of nature’s creations, therefore everything we do is natural, including pollution, farming, war- everything. It may come as no surprise to you to discover that I consider this “theory” to be nothing more than lazy thinking- an attempt to escape responsibility for all the needless crimes committed by us. The sort of statement usually accompanied by a look that says “HAH! Get out of that one” by someone who isn’t interested in the subject and wants to look “intelligent”, but it doesn’t hold up very long as an argument. We have tried at every available opportunity to take ourselves out of the Animal Kingdom and prove us to be better than them. Now, I don’t agree with this either, but surely we can’t try to take ourselves away from the influences of nature (we artificially create the things we need to survive like clothes as we wouldn’t survive a winter without them, we adapt our surroundings in order to suit our needs or wants, and we remove anything that could in anyway harm us, very often creating something to do so as we can’t do it ourselves), yet we still claim that the things we do are natural!

So why should we care about the extinction of what is, after all, only a subspecies? The quick answer is there is no such thing as “only” a subspecies. A simple definition of a subspecies is a group within a species that displays behavioural or physical changes sufficiently different to the norm to make scientists believe that it is heading down the evolutionary path to becoming a separate species. There are many subspecies in the world. In Britain the Red Grouse, Pied Wagtail, Shetland Wren, Fair Isle Wren, St Kilda Wren, Dipper, Irish Hare, Scottish Wildcat, St Kilda Field Mouse, Orkney Vole, Skomer Vole, Gwyniad, Schelly, Verdace, Pollan and Powan are all subspecies. And that’s only the endemic birds, mammals and fish. It doesn’t include reptiles, amphibs, inverts or plants. It also doesn’t include subspecies also found elsewhere, such as our House Sparrow, Carrion Crow or Blue Tit. It gives an idea of just how many subspecies there are, which in turn shows how the evolutionary process is always at work. We should be ensuring the safety (from Man) of subspecies the world over, whether they are non-descript or exotic, as they are the species of the future. Surely that should be a no-brainer? Every time a subspecies becomes extinct unnaturally, we take a step closer to the homogenisation of future biodiversity.

And that’s why the death of Lonesome George is more than just the passing of a mere subspecies. The more I think about it, and the more photos I see of him, the more it makes me sad.

And it should you too.

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4 thoughts on “The Importance Of Subspecies or Why Lonesome George Was More Than Just A Sad News Item

  1. Nice post as always. I am a huge Galapagos fan and I’ve been checking on Lonely George every now and then (never been to Galapagos, it’s still a dream). But there is another perspective as well – giving the tortoise a name and adding the Lonesome adjective before it, certainly influenced the way people thought about it. I suddenly had my facebook wall flooded with the news of George’s death. People that have never even heard of Lonely George or the Galapagos biodiversity or that between 30-150 species of life become extinct every day, all of sudden became way too concerned about endangered species. Or so they said. A week after the event, they have all forgotten about Lonesome George. And they went on publishing fashion photos, celebrity news etc. People felt the empathy but only for a while. I honestly think it’s too late to save the planet. We are too ignorant and too selfish to care…

    • I do agree to a certain degree. The hard part is working out which species declines are natural and which aren’t. Then there’s things like the Giant Panda- yes we’re responsible for it’s rapid decline, but if it’s numbers were dropping anyway, then is it worth spending money on protecting? People are also, as you point out a difficult one. Evidence shows that the generalpublic are more likely to donate to a fund if it’s aimed at an animal they are aware of especially if it’s a carnivore. That’s why you see so many Tigers, Leopards and Polar Bears in adverts. Surely it’s the responsibility of charities, museums and schools to raise awareness of other species too? For exaple, why doesn’t the WWF put out an advert for general funds, saying “we need moneyto help protect and preserve many endangered species round the world, not only species like Tigers and Whales, but also things like the Mountain Chicken and Binturong” All of a sudden, after say, 5 of these adverts, people are becoming more aware of not only what needs to be done, but also just what biodiversity means. THEN, we can make a start on sorting the planet out. Also, if governments and media can influence people’s interests (which they can- just look at trends in TV programming and voting over the last 20 years), then they have a responsibilty to make conservation and wildlife a cool thing for everybody to believe in. Sadly doubt it will ever happen, despite the relative ease of it.

  2. Hi,

    I am very glad I found your blog (through Nature Blog Network). You have a good retort for the “Man-is-a-part-of-nature-so-we-have-the-right-to-destroy-it” theory. The next time I hear someone propounding it, I am going to direct them to your blog 🙂 Very sad about George’s death. Like you said, we don’t know how many sub-species are quietly disappearing from the face of the earth while we go on maiming the planet in every way possible.

  3. Thank you for those kind words, I’ve always found that argument annoying. It’s like a teenager that has a party that ends up in a trashed house, and then saying to the parents “I live in this house so I can do what I want here!” to avoid responsibility for tidying up and mending the damages.

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