This Lothario Tortoise Finally Saved His Entire Species From Extinction, And How He Did It Is Heroic


During an apocalypse movie, there is undoubtedly
a scene at the end of the film where our bedraggled hero has to step up and, against all odds,
save the world’s population. In real life, though, the hero of this particular
end-of-the-species story is a tortoise. But this is not just any tortoise. No, this, for want of a better phrase, is
an especially randy male tortoise. And, with the help of some very cooperative
females of his species, he has gone ahead and bonked his way to saving an entire population
from the brink of extinction. The Chelonoidis hoodensis tortoise is a species
of Galápagos tortoise that hails from the island of Española. But, sadly, 50 years ago the population on
the island had depleted to just two males and 12 females. And because the giant tortoises were not all
grouped together, it would have taken them nearly forever to find each other and mate,
despite living on a seemingly small island. After all, they are tortoises. An intervention was clearly needed. Of course, the Galápagos Islands are famous
for their amazing range of biodiversity, which Charles Darwin noted in the 1830s. In fact, the naturalist’s theory on evolution,
and specifically the “survival of the fittest,” ¬is today epitomized by one very potent tortoise
named Diego. When conservationists searched globally for
Chelonoidis hoodensis tortoises in the 1970s, they found Diego living a cushy life at the
San Diego Zoo. It’s unsure just how Diego ended up in California,
but he “must have been taken from Española sometime between 1900 and 1959 by a scientific
expedition,” according to Washington Tapia, a tortoise preservation specialist at Galápagos
National Park. But duty called, so in 1976 Diego made his
way back to the Galápagos Islands. And, heroically, since landing at the tortious
breeding center on Santa Cruz island, Diego has been one very busy male. Forty years later, Diego is almost 35 inches,
182 pounds and 100 years ¬of pure Casanova. Yes, today he lives with six females and has
helped drag his species back from the brink of extinction. In fact, Diego is one of the most promiscuous
male tortoises the reproduction center has ever seen. “He’s a very sexually active male reproducer. He’s contributed enormously to repopulating
the island,” Tapia said. Happily, in the last four decades the giant
sperm donor has fathered over 800 offspring, all of which have been released back into
their natural habitat on Española. Curiously, it was only six years ago that
experts realized just how fertile Diego has been in all of this time. “We did a genetic study and we discovered
that he was the father of nearly 40 percent of the offspring released into the wild on
Española,” Tapia revealed. The results indicate without a doubt that
Diego was the fittest of three males assigned to repopulate Española. Even Darwin would have been impressed. In all, about 2,000 young tortoises have been
released on Española thanks to the Santa Cruz-based breeding program. Yet even though the species no longer faces
extinction, there’s still a long way to go with their conservation. “I wouldn’t say [the species] is in perfect
health, because historical records show there probably used to be more than 5,000 tortoises
on the island,” said Tapia. “But it’s a population that’s [now]
in pretty good shape – and growing, which is the most important.” Not surprisingly, experts from Diego’s former
home at the San Diego Zoo are pleased as punch to hear the news. “Diego’s story is an outstanding example
of how cooperation between different organizations can truly make a difference in saving wildlife,”
reported San Diego Zoo Ambassador Rick Schwartz. But, sadly, breeding programs aren’t an
option for those species already lost to us. In fact, of the 15 species of giant tortoises
that once populated the Galápagos Islands, four of them are now extinct. Shockingly, prior to the 18th century, there
was thought to be around 300,000 giant tortoises living on the islands. The estimated population today, however, is
between 20,000 and 25,000. Of course, much of the biodiversity loss came
from a combination of factors – including hunting for meat and oil, habitat clearance
and the introduction of non-native animals, like pigs, goats and rats to the islands. Most recently, the aptly named Lonesome George
died in 2012 at over 100 years old. He was the last of his kind, a Chelonoidis
abingdoni Galápagos giant tortoise that once populated Pinta Island. Amd although there had been numerous attempts
at mating George since he was found alone on the island in 1971, none of the eggs he
fertilized with other female subspecies produced viable young. However, researchers learned, soon after George’s
death, that hybrids of his species may exist on the largest Galápagos island, Isabella. Then, later in 2015, mitochondrial DNA showed
that some tortoises from Santa Cruz Island were genetically distinct from the species
they had been identified as and were given a new species name: Chelonoidis donfaustoi. Furthermore, the newly identified tortoises
are more closely related to Pinta island tortoises than to other tortoises on Santa Cruz, giving
fresh hope that not all of George’s genetic heritage is lost. Looking forward to the future, conservationists
are hopeful that, thanks to breeding programs and biodiversity protection laws, no other
tortoise species will again be lost to extinction. As for Diego’s progeny, they are now spreading
out to the neighboring island of Santa Fe – where another species of Chelonoidis tortoise
went extinct more than 150 years ago. Meanwhile, Diego still has several reproductive
decades expected ahead of him. We can only hope that he and his female companions
have had as much fun with their heroic efforts as all superheroes saving their species from
the brink of extinction should.

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