These days, many people in the U.S. are waiting until they’re older to have children—but nobody’s waiting as long as Mr. Pickles, a radiated tortoise at the Houston Zoo who just fathered his first offspring at the age of 90.
Mr. Pickles and his mate, Mrs. Pickles, who is only 53, have been living together since the female tortoise arrived at the zoo in 1996, according to a zoo statement. In a nod to the family’s brine-inspired surname, the three babies were named Dill, Gherkin and Jalapeño.
The arrival of the young tortoises has excited conservationists, but that’s not just because of the father’s age—radiated tortoises are also a critically endangered species that produces few offspring.
The species gets its name from the yellow lines that radiate from the center of each plate on their shells, per the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. They are native only to the island of Madagascar but have been introduced to the nearby islands of Réunion and Mauritius, located to the east, according to Zoo Atlanta. The tortoises have lost habitat space in their native environment due to slash-and-burn agriculture and mining. Poachers remove an estimated 20,000 radiated tortoises from the wild for the illegal pet trade and meat each year.
The Houston Zoo’s young tortoises owe their survival to a case of serendipity: The eggs might not have made it if a keeper hadn’t noticed Mrs. Pickles laying them, per the Houston Zoo’s statement. Since the soil at the zoo isn’t hospitable for the eggs, keepers moved them to the Reptile & Amphibian House.
“Our herpetology keeper happened to be at the right place at the right time,” Tarah Cornelius, the Houston Zoo’s director of animal care, says to CNN’s Jeanne Moos.
“If you don’t see the female actually digging a hole and laying the eggs, it can very easily be missed,” Jon Rold, supervisor of herpetology and entomology at the Houston Zoo, tells the New York Times’ McKenna Oxenden. “And if it is missed and the eggs don’t get in the proper setup soon enough, they just won’t develop.”
While radiated tortoises can live up to 150 years, researchers don’t know how long they are capable of reproduction, Jessica Reyes, a zoo spokesperson, tells the Times. The reptiles grow to around 15.5 inches long and weigh about 23 pounds, per the Atlanta Zoo. In the wild, they live in dry forests and scrubland, as well as on high inland plateaus and sand dunes along the coasts. They mostly feed on grasses, fruits and succulents.
Zookeepers monitored the eggs, keeping them at just the right level of heat—about 50 degrees Fahrenheit at first, then room temperature, then a toasty 80 degrees in an incubator, per the Times. Mrs. Pickles laid the eggs in October, and they hatched on different days in mid-February, according to USA Today’s Wyatte Grantham-Philips.
The young tortoises can be recognized by their shells: Jalapeño’s shell is the darkest, Dill’s is lighter and Gherkin’s pale shell also has a white dot in the center, per NPR’s Joe Hernandez.
The trio will stay in the Reptile & Amphibian House until they have grown enough to safely join their parents in the exhibit.