George the achatinella apexfulva: An ambassador for endangered Hawaiian snails and survived by none

George the achatinella apexfulva: An ambassador for endangered Hawaiian snails and survived by none
(Image: DLNR)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Hawaii has long been dubbed the “extinction capital of the world.”

George lived in a small plastic, climate-controlled cage. (Image: Hawaii News Now)
George lived in a small plastic, climate-controlled cage. (Image: Hawaii News Now)

That’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in a tiny lab in Kaneohe, where state scientists care for species of indigenous Hawaiian snails so endangered their numbers can sometimes be counted on one hand.

It was in that “snail ark” where George lived out the last years of its life — a reminder of how ecosystem degradation, invasive species, humans and climate change have decimated endemic snails across the islands.

[Read more: From a small lab in Windward Oahu, scientists race against time to save rare Hawaiian snails]

George was also the last of its kind — the only achatinella apexfulva known to exist on the planet.

And on New Year’s Day, George died peacefully (at the ripe old age of 14) surrounded by its beloved branches in a tiny climate-controlled cage.

George was named after “Lonesome George,” the last Pinta Island Galapagos tortoise.

It was picked up from a Hawaiian forest in 1997 and moved to a University of Hawaii lab. Back then, there were 10 of its kind known alive.

Initially, the desperate move by researchers appeared to have paid off. Several babies were born in captivity.

But then tragedy struck: A die-off took all but one of the achatinella apexfulva in the lab. Only George was left.

And so, George matured alone — a hermaphrodite who still needed a partner to reproduce.

Year after year, George was cared for by researchers and trotted into the limelight as a lesson for humanity: Do something now to preserve Hawaiian forests or risk having many more Georges (and extinctions) in the future.

“He was featured in many newspaper, magazine and online articles, and hundreds of schoolchildren and visitors to the lab eagerly viewed him, the last of his kind,” the state Department of Land and Natural Resources said.

“Sadly, his passing is also a harbinger of what’s to come for our remaining kahuli (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.”

It might be tough for non-scientists to grasp the importance of Hawaii’s endemic snails. But they are a crucial member of endemic forests — and they’re disappearing fast.

The state points out that achatinella apexfulva was the first of over 750 species of land snail from the Hawaiian Islands to be described by western science. Back then, land snails were so plentiful their shells were used to make lei.

If there’s one bright spot in George’s story, it’s that science might yet save its species.

Two years ago, a small snippet from George’s foot was sent it off to San Diego Zoo, where it was frozen. So while George has died, his tissue remains alive.

And one day, that tissue could be used to clone achatinella apexfulva out of extinction.

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