Imagine being the parent of 800 children. It’s impossible for humans to achieve this high number but it happened for Diego, a legendary tortoise who helped save his species from extinction by fathering over 800 baby tortoises.
But after 87 years of reproductive work, Diego finally retired in June 2020. He’ll live out the rest of his life in peace in the beautiful Galapagos Islands. But why was he chosen to father all of the babies? What makes Diego so special? This is a tortoise who has more children than he knows what to do with.
Becoming a Father
Diego, now 100 years old, has been living in captivity on Santa Cruz Island in Galapagos, Ecuador for the past 87 years. It’s believed he was chosen by explorers in 1933 to participate in a breeding program. He eventually found his way to California’s San Diego Zoo, where he was tested to see if he would be a suitable breeder.
Diego, who weighs 175 pounds and can reach five feet tall when he stretches his neck, exceeded everyone’s expectations. He was the perfect match and he was brought to Santa Cruz Island to become a prolific breeder. He immediately began producing baby tortoises. He’s now responsible for producing at least 40 percent of the 2,000 existing tortoises in the world.
Tortoise preservation specialist Washington Tapia commented, “He’s a very sexually active male reproducer. He’s contributed enormously to repopulating the island.” Scientists even referred to Diego as a “sex machine.”
Saving a Population
Diego helped save an entire population, which is why he is so highly regarded in animal conservation. In fact, just 50 years ago, there were only two males and 12 females alive in the Galapagos. They were too far apart to reproduce. Diego helped save his own species. He’s worthy of the “Father of the Year” trophy for this contribution.
The Galapagos Islands have been the center of the discussion on evolution, animal reproduction, and biodiversity ever since 1835. This is when naturalist Charles Darwin spent five weeks in the islands studying the turtles, tortoises, marine and land iguanas, and frigate birds. He documented his findings in his famous book, On the Origin of Species.
But years after Darwin’s study, the population dwindled due to many predators, human behavior, development, and habitat destruction. Other species invaded the islands, killing tortoises right and left. We have a feeling Darwin would be proud of Diego’s contribution to the islands and to saving the tortoise population.
However, all things must come to an end, and Diego is finally retiring from the breeding program after 87 years of being an active breeder. He will return to an uninhabited Galapagos island, Española Island, off the coast of South America. Diego will finally get to relax.
Ecuador’s environment minister said this the end of “an important chapter in the management of Galapagos National Park.” He added, “Fifteen turtles from Española Island, including Diego, return home after decades of breeding in captivity and saving their species from extinction. Your island welcomes you with open arms.”
It was a careful process to transport the tortoises. The turtles could spread non-native plants to the island — plants they have been feasting on for decades. However, these plants aren’t accustomed to the new surroundings and the tortoises could be carrying seeds in their digestive system. To prevent this, the tortoises spent time in quarantine before they were transported to their new home by boat.
Diego can now live the rest of his life in peace. He doesn’t have to be a “sex machine” anymore. He has fulfilled his duties, and every tortoise probably thanks him for his service.
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