Spring has sprung, and nonagenarians of the male sex are having a frisky week. Rupert Murdoch, 92, announced his engagement to a woman 26 years his junior—it’ll be his fifth marriage. But the media titan was out-playboyed by a reptile of the nonmetaphorical variety, a Houston tortoise named Mr. Pickles who became a father for the first time at 90 years old—37 years older than the three hatchlings’ mother, Mrs. Pickles.
Mr. Pickles’ virility—in spite of his vintage—earned him ink in the New York Times, NPR, and USA Today, among other outlets, but less attention was paid to his and his partner’s May-December romance. Is it common for a 90-year-old male tortoise to step out with a 53-year-old female? Age gaps in romantic relationships have been getting more scrutiny in the public eye over the past few years, with Demi Lovato singing about them, Taylor Swift making music videos about them, and Leonardo DiCaprio dedicating his life to raising awareness of them. Never mind for a second that all those people are people—does the Houston Zoo, where Mr. and Mrs. Pickles reside, condone such large age disparities? Is its Reptile and Amphibian House some kind of den of iniquity and/or pickup scene for sugar-daddy tortoises?
According to Chris Bednarski, a herpetology keeper at the zoo, there’s nothing untoward going on: Age gaps of this sort are pretty ordinary in radiated tortoises, which is Mr. Pickles’ species. “It’s not an abnormal thing,” he told me.
Craig Stanford, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Southern California, acknowledged that the difference between the pair “might sound vaguely scandalous if we think in human terms.” But it’s no scandal for radiated tortoises. “As long as they’re both sexually mature, it doesn’t matter whether the female’s 100 and the male’s 20, or vice versa,” Stanford said. Plus, since tortoises can live to 150, 90-year-olds start to look merely middle-aged.
Still, tortoise mating mores are very different from human mating mores, and it’s partly because tortoise fertility is very different than human fertility. As Stanford explained, “One of the interesting things about turtles and tortoises in general is that the older the female gets, the more fertile she is—so, unlike our own species, in most turtles and tortoises, a 90-year-old female is more fertile than a 20-year-old female.” Male radiated tortoises are also capable of reproduction at advanced ages, but as with their human counterparts, their sperm count decreases as time goes on.
It’s unknown how late in life they can reproduce, but “having a 90-year-old tortoise of any species reproducing is kind of unique,” Bednarski said.
As for whether males are more attracted to females of any certain age, probably not. “Male tortoises are just, to be honest, so horny that they will try to mate with boulders, shoes, bricks,” Stanford said. “Anything that vaguely resembles the shape of a turtle shell, they’ll try to mount, when it’s warm weather and it’s breeding season.”
So it wasn’t the case that elderly Mr. Pickles was chasing the relatively youthful Mrs. Pickles; theirs was actually something of an arranged marriage. “They were housed together with the intent to breed, and we were able to successfully pull it off,” said Bednarski.
Radiated tortoises are an endangered species. Their population has dwindled significantly over the past 30 years due to people eating them and keeping them as pets in overwhelming numbers, as well as habitat loss. That’s another reason these three baby tortoises are such a big deal. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums had previously determined that Mr. Pickles was “genetically valuable,” meaning that any offspring could help broaden the gene pool of the tortoises the organization tracks. “We want to have a nice array of bloodlines to be able to have as much genetic diversity for as long as we possibly can,” Bednarski said. “So these babies are new blood for the radiated tortoise population.” The babies won’t start to show external sexual characteristics for three to five years, so it will be a while before the zoo knows their sexes, according to Bednarski.
Tortoises are not typically monogamous, but the Pickleses effectively are because they live only with each other. Prior to the birth of the hatchlings, the two made up two-thirds of the Houston Zoo’s radiated tortoise population. (The only other adult was Mrs. Pickles’ son “from a previous marriage,” Bednarski quipped.)
The Pickleses have been together for 27 years, and their marriage has not been loveless. “They’ve been going to town for years,” Bednarski said. The problem also wasn’t that Mrs. Pickles wasn’t laying eggs; she was, but tortoises bury their eggs, so the zoo didn’t always know they were there. “They cover these nests up so well to avoid predation that it’s borderline impossible for us to know that eggs were laid unless we literally see her doing it,” Bednarski said. The lucky break was that a keeper happened to witness the eggs this time. They likely wouldn’t have done well in the soil, so the zoo was able to place them in a temperature-safe environment.
Does Mr. Pickles even know that he’s a dad now? “We told him this morning, and he didn’t seem too upset about it, but he’s been drinking a whole lot,” Bednarski joked.
Radiated tortoises don’t typically have any parental role in their offspring’s lives. “They lay their eggs and walk away and that’s the end of it,” Bednarski said. That means Mr. and Mrs. Pickles are free to get back to business, which could include making more babies.
“I’ll be completely honest with you,” Bednarski said of Mr. Pickles, “At 90 years old, I am absolutely shocked at how interested in his lady he still is. It’s nonstop. We were mid-interview this morning and he was initiating already. So he’s still got it going on at his age. It’s impressive.”