George, the Last Hawaiian Land Snail, Passes Away
The Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) Division of Forestry and Wildlife reports that George the snail, the last known Achatinella apexfulva, died on Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2019.
According to David Sischo, wildlife biologist with the Hawai‘i Invertebrate Program, George was approximately 14 years old. He was the last of his species.
The land snail’s namesake was in homage to the famous Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise known as Lonesome George, the last of his kind.
While from vastly different evolutionary lineages, these Georges lived simple lives in captivity. Both quietly carried millions of years of evolution—their entire genome and blueprint for how to make them—into oblivion.
Sischo said Achatinella apexfulva was the first of over 750 species of land snail from the Hawaiian Islands to be described by western science. This first description came from a shell on a lei given to Captain George Dixon while docked on O‘ahu around 1787. Apex fulva, or yellow tip, was a trait that many of their kind displayed and is what they were named for.
These snails were once widely distributed on O‘ahu in the central-northern Ko‘olau Mountains, and because they occurred in lower elevations that made them easily accessible, were heavily used for making lei due for the beauty of their shells.
In 1997, the last 10 known Achatinella apexfulva were brought to a laboratory at the University of Hawai‘i for captive rearing. A few babies were born, but when the lab experienced a die-off for unknown reasons, all the Achatinella apexfulva perished expect for one lone individual, and that was George.
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. Achatinella apexfulva seem to have been an obligate outcrossing species, meaning that they needed a partner to reproduce.
During his life, George was often in the limelight, an ambassador for the plight of the Hawaiian land snails. 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.
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. Many of the island’s remaining land snails are facing imminent extinction.
In 2017, however, a small two-millimeter snippet of George’s foot was collected, using a sterile razor blade, and plopped into a vial of pink-colored media. This media kept the tissue alive while it was quickly mailed overnight to San Diego.
This snippet of living tissue from George now remains alive in a deep freeze at the San Diego Zoo’s Frozen Zoo. While it is currently not possible to clone a snail, it will be some day.