Lonely George’s death marked the extinction of yet another species of Hawaiian tree snail, Achatinella apexfulva, but the repercussions are more serious than one empty shell.
This is another reminder of what stands to be lost in the face of climate change and habitat modification, which are responsible for the rapid extinctions in Hawaii.
George was born in the early 2000s in a captive breeding program at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. Shortly after his birth, the rest of his kin – the last known individuals of their species – died.
So began a fervent search by scientists to find George a mate in order to save his species. Unfortunately, this story has a plot that’s become far too familiar. Efforts to save Lonely George and his entire species were in vain.
The snail was named for Lonesome George or El Solitario Jorge, the last of his subspecies (Chelonoidis abingdonii) of Galapagos tortoises, who died in 2012.
Like Lonesome George the tortoise, Lonely George the Hawaiian tree snail is a symbol of something bigger than himself.
“I know it’s just a snail, but it represents a lot more,” said David Sischo, coordinator of the Snail Extinction Prevention Program and wildlife biologist with the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, in conversation with National Geographic.
Once, hundreds of species of Hawaiian tree snail could be found hanging from Hawaiian native trees. Now, whole species are disappearing alarmingly fast.
“We’ve had populations that have been monitored for over a decade, and they seemed stable… then, within the past two years they’ve completely disappeared,” said Sischo. “We’ve all broken down and cried in the field.”
The snails’ past abundance demonstrated the integral role they played in the ecosystem of the islands. Some species act as decomposers, like earthworms. Some work on leaves, eating the rot that can cause problems for endemic species.
Biologists suspect that healthy snail populations could have prevented the spread of Rapid ʻŌhiʻa Death, a fungal disease currently wiping out great swaths of native ʻŌhiʻa trees.
Climate change, never far from tales of environmental woe, yet again played its part. Warming temperatures and increased rainfall have allowed the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea), an introduced species, to climb to higher altitudes that were once the last refuge of Hawaiian natives.
The rosy wolfsnail was introduced to eat giant African snails and instead has decimated native snail populations.
Lonely George’s death stands as a reminder that human intervention is wreaking havoc on natural ecosystems. The true cost of species loss often can’t be known until it’s too late.
It’s a warning we’ve heard many times over, but seem incapable of heeding.
George’s remains are preserved in ethanol. His shell will be housed in the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum’s malacological collection, alongside 2 million other land snail specimens from Hawaii.
[Lead image: David Sischo via the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources (left) Westend61 via Getty Images (right)[