Lonesome George. Geochelone nigra abingdoni.
What does it mean to be the last of one's kind? There are some species on the planet for which time has run out, or which are approaching zero hour. We assume that animals have no larger consciousness of such things, but for us, the poignancy of their predicament is undeniable.
At Darwin Research Station, Puerto Ayora, Santa Cruz Island of the Galápagos Islands, staff are trying unsuccessfully to cross-breed the last of a sub-species of Galapagos Giant Tortoise, Lonesome George. Specifically, George is a Pinta Island Giant Tortoise and he was found in 1971. George is considered the rarest creature in the world. There may be another Pinta male in Prague Zoo, named Tony, and yet another male living in the wild at the foot of Wolf Volcano on the Galápagos Isabela Island. There is a reward of $10,000 for the discovery of a Pinta female.
Genetic studies of the tortoises have uncovered a possible surviving specimen of the Floreana Tortoise, previously believed extinct. According to Teresa Hotchkin: "research discovered descendants of the extinct Floreana Tortoise. The Floreana subspecies became extinct during the early 20th century due to human activities, and unlike Lonesome George no known examples were known to have survived. Yet, the DNA research uncovered 9 tortoises with high percentage of Floreana genome (up to 94%) and they believe 1 tortoise may even be pureblood. Of the tortoises identified of being from Floreana 6 are female and 3 are male all of which are currently residing at the breeding center in Santa Cruz." There is a further report on the Floreana Tortoise here.
The Northern White Rhinoceros currently has eight members of the species left, until recently held in the USA and the Czech Republic. On December 20, 2009, four of the Czech animals that are still capable of breeding have been returned to their natural habitat in Kenya, where they are held in partial captivity in the hope that they will reproduce. The four rhinos - Sudan, Suni, Fatu and Najin - were moved from Dvůr Králové Zoo to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. Reports here and here.
Sudan, one of the last male Northern White Rhinos left alive on the planet, May 2010.
One of the rarest cat species in the world is the Iberian Lynx. From Wiki: "According to the conservation group SOS Lynx, if this species died out, it would be the first feline extinction since the Smilodon 10,000 years ago." There are just over 100 cats left. Reports here and here.
The rarest tree frog is likely the Isthmohyla rivularis. Believed to be extinct, in 2007 Andrew Gray of the University of Manchester's Manchester Museum, found and photographed a male in Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica. A female was spotted by a Manchester team in Costa Rica in September 2008; another report is here.
The rarest insect in the world is the Lord Howe Island stick insect, Dryococelus australis. Wiki: "It was thought to be extinct by 1930, only to be rediscovered in 2001 (this phenomenon is known as the Lazarus effect). It is extinct in its largest habitat, Lord Howe Island ... as the rediscovered population consisted of fewer than 30 individuals living on the small islet of Ball's Pyramid." According to the Sydney Morning Herald, a "Campbelltown entomologist, Stephen Fellenberg, has raised about 30 of the insects and is giving a pair of adults to Sydney Wildlife World, at Darling Harbour, for breeding. Melbourne Zoo will supply juvenile insects and eggs." Another report is here.
Stephen Fellenberg, a researcher who is managing the breeding program to save the Lord Howe Island phasmid.
Here is a list of the 8 rarest fish species: the Coelacanth, the Borna (Chel) Snakehead, the Megamouth and Goblin Sharks, the Colossal Squid, the Chimaera, the Black Swallower, and the Black Lizardfish, also known as the Deep-water Greeneye. The Coelacanth was believed to be an extinct fish from the Cretaceous period - until one was found in 1938. Similarly, the Megamouth Shark was believed extinct and in fact is not. There is a list of known sightings or captures here.
The Coelacanth, a missing link from prehistoric times.
Lazarus species, or species that are believed to be extinct and then turn out to still be alive, are described on Wiki as follows: "In paleontology, a Lazarus taxon ... is a taxon that disappears from one or more periods of the fossil record, only to appear again later. The term refers to the account in the Gospel of John, in which Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus taxa are observational artifacts that appear to occur either because of (local) extinction, later resupplied, or as a sampling artifact. If the extinction is conclusively found to be total (global or worldwide) and the supplanting species is not a lookalike (an Elvis species), the observational artifact is overcome." It's not surprising that paleontologists have to deal with species apparently coming back from the dead, and with doppelgängers, but it is interesting that they use Biblical and popular cultural metaphors to understand them.
Scientists have also established a Noah's DNA Arc for plant species. Called a " doomsday seed vault" by USA Today, the facility opened in February 2009 on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Ocean. For the link to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Longyearbyen, Norway, go here. The official site states the Vault's mission as follows: "The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which is established in the permafrost in the mountains of Svalbard, is designed to store duplicates of seeds from seed collections around the globe. Many of these collections are in developing countries. If seeds are lost, e.g. as a result of natural disasters, war or simply a lack of resources, the seed collections may be reestablished using seeds from Svalbard."
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, interior.
Here is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Critically Endangered Species in the Animal Kingdom. Here is a history of the IUCN Red Lists.
Years ago, I read a 1971 novel by the late Lionel Davidson called Smith's Gazelle, which involved a miraculous story about a Jewish boy and an Arab conservationist during the Six Day War, wherein the two are bound up in the effort to save the last remaining members of a fictitious dying gazelle species. According to Amazon: "The Smith's gazelle, a species thought to be extinct, becomes an allegory for peace in Israel." The enduring memory I have of reading that book is of the closing scene, when all the surviving gazelles run through a minefield and are blown up, except two stragglers, that veer off into the night, escaping to an unknown fate.