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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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