Meet Gunther. He’s been at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County for over a hundred years, and most visitors never even see him.
At the far end of a long hall leading to the Museum’s Research Library, there is a perfectly preserved skeleton of a Galápagos tortoise, one of a pair in their herpetology collection (that’s reptiles and amphibians). In 1900 he was captured and transported to a ranch in Riverside, California by the well-known zoologist Edmund Heller, just a little guy at the time weighing 29 pounds (the tortoise, not Heller).
He survived in captivity for only 14 years, but in that time grew to a robust 450 pounds. His body was then donated to the Museum, and although Heller’s letter to the director called him a “very stupid” tortoise (not cool, professor!), Gunther had helped early researchers learn more about the species, and how they age and grow.
The Galápagos tortoise is actually a collection of sub-species, each one unique to its particular island. This one, named for British zoologist Albert Günther, is native to Isabela (the largest of the archipelago), and today is threatened not only by predators that have been introduced to the island (pigs, dogs, rats, and cats), but by the threat of an eruption from the Sierra Negra volcano. Some 20 specimens have been placed in conservation and breeding programs, to try and stem the tide of extinction.
Sadly, another subspecies, the Pinta (or Abingdon) Island tortoise, lost its last known survivor in 2012. Named “Lonesome George,” his kin were thought extinct decades ago when he was found living a solitary life in 1971. He was estimated to be around 100 years old at the time of his death, and had been living a protected life on Santa Cruz Island in the hopes of cross-breeding and repopulating his subspecies.
Johannah Barry, the President of the Galápagos Conservancy, said of George, that he “… became a symbol of the tremendous advances that can be made when science, conservation expertise, and political will are aligned on a common cause.” We can only hope that Gunther’s remaining relatives stick around long enough to find out for sure.