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Explained: Who is Diego, the giant tortoise?

The famous resident of the Galapagos Islands with a sex drive that helped secure the future of his species.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: January 14, 2020 8:58:53 am
Diego tortoise, who is Diego the tortoise, Galapagos National Park, Chelonoidis hoodensis, indian express, indian express explained Diego will soon be returned to his home in Española Island, from where he was taken around 80 years ago. (Photo: Galapagos National Park/NYT)

Diego has retired. A member of the Chelonoidis hoodensis, or the giant tortoise species, Diego has spent much of his long life — he is 100 years old — in saving his kind. His phenomenal sex drive ensured he produced enough progeny to secure the future of his species. On January 10, the Galapagos National Park, where Diego lived, called off the captive breeding programme.

“Based on the results of the last census conducted at the end of 2019 and all the data available since 1960, both of the island and its turtle population, we developed mathematical models with different possible scenarios for the next hundred years and in all the conclusion was that the island has sufficient conditions to keep the turtle population that will continue to grow normally, even without any new repatriation of juveniles,” said Washington Tapia, director, Giant Tortoise Restoration Initiative (GTRI) of the National Park.

Diego will soon be returned to his home in Española Island, from where he was taken around 80 years ago.

What did Diego do?

According to the National Park, a lot.

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Diego joined the breeding programme in 1976, and the tortoise population has since gone up from 15 to 2,000. The New York Times has quoted James P Gibbs, a professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York in Syracuse, as saying that paternity tests indicate Diego is responsible for about 40 per cent of the offspring produced.

“Another more reserved, less charismatic male — ‘E5’ — has generated about 60 per cent,” the NYT report quotes Gibbs as saying. “The third male — ‘E3’ — virtually none. So Diego has been critical.”

Diego’s contribution becomes more apparent when contrasted with Lonesome George, another gaint tortoise living in Galápagos. George’s species, Chelonoidis abingdonii, was wiped out because he never fathered any progeny in all his years at the park.

What makes Diego special

As the figures show, Diego is not the most prolific male tortoise in the park. But it is his “personality” that makes him special — and far more famous than E5.

Diego is loud, aggressive, and demonstrative. According to Professor Gibbs, “It might come as a surprise to many but tortoises do form what we would call ‘relationships. The social hierarchies and relationships of giant tortoises are very poorly known.”

According to the NYT, Diego has a “long leathery neck, dull-yellow face and beady eyes”. Fully stretched out, he extends to about five feet, and weighs about 176 pounds.

The long neck is critical for his species’ survival, helping the tortoises crane their neck to feed on cactii.

Why was his species in danger

Tortoises on the Galápagos Islands served as excellent source of food for seafarers in the 1800s. They could survive inside ships for upto a year, and so a large number were picked up from the islands.Not all were eaten — they would be cast off a ship when it needed to lose ballast.

Feral goats on the islands posed another danger, competing for food, destroying the tortoises’ habitat.

Apart from breeding programmes, scientists are also working on restoring the ecology of these islands, so Diego’s and other species like his can thrive.

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