Lonely George, a beloved Hawaiian tree snail that was the last known member of its entire species, died at the age of 14, state wildlife officials said.
The brown and white snail was the sole survivor of the Achatinella apexfulva species, a type of invertebrate that once flourished across the tropical islands and was known as the “jewels of the forest,” according to Hawaii’s Snail Extinction Prevention Program.
“He was featured in many newspaper, magazine and online articles, and hundreds of school children and visitors to the lab eagerly viewed him, the last of his kind,” the department wrote last week.
Scientists and environmentalists have fought the destruction of the tree snails’ habitat and the increase of invasive predators, both of which are blamed for the snails’ death.
In 2012, Lonely George was taken to the University of Hawaii among 10 of the last known Achatinella apexfulva snails. There, the snail outlived all of its gastropod companions, leaving it unable to mate with another snail of its kind, according to the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.
“George matured in a cage by himself, and although we called him a ‘he,’ the snail was a hermaphrodite, having both male and female parts,“ the department wrote. “Unfortunately, Achatinella apexfulva seem to have been an obligate outcrossing species, meaning that it needed a partner to reproduce.”
Lonely George was named after Lonesome George, the famous Pinta Island tortoise who was the last of his species before his death in the Galapagos Islands in 2012.
In 2017, scientists collected a two-millimeter snippet of George’s foot and sent it to San Diego’s Frozen Zoo, where the living tissue sample remains frozen. This preservation offers the chance that in the future, the snail could be cloned and allowed to live again, if technology allows.
The Snail Extinction Prevention Program, which is part of Hawaii’s Forestry and Wildlife division, is working to protect the islands’ tree snails from meeting a fate similar to Lonely George’s.
The islands once boasted more than 750 species of terrestrial snails, but more than 90 percent of the diversity has since been lost, according to the program’s website.
University of Hawaii Professor Emeritus Michael Hadfield, who ran a conservation lab for snails of the Achatinella genus, told CNN that despite scientists’ efforts, the future of Lonely George’s genus also looks bleak.
“There’s no doubt that only 10 or so of those (species) still exist, and none of them will survive in the next 10 years,” Hadfield said. “The extinctions have just been horrendous.”
The Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources similarly cautioned that Lonely George’s death is likely just the beginning.
“Sadly, his passing is also a harbinger of what’s to come for our remaining Kāhuli (tree snails) if more is not done quickly to protect them from invasive species and climate change,” the department wrote. “Many of the island’s remaining land snails are facing imminent extinction.”