It’s incredible to envision all the changes which have taken place over the last two hundred years. But imagine actually living through them. Like a living time capsule , there is one land-based animal residing on a remote South Atlantic island who could teach us a thing or two about our history: Meet Jonathan the tortoise, the world’s oldest living land animal.
According to the Guinness Book of World Records , Jonathan celebrated his 190th birthday in December 2022 from his home on the island of Saint Helena, 1,000 miles off the African coast. A Seychelles giant tortoise ( Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa ), Jonathan is thought to have been born in 1832. Nevertheless, this is a conservative estimate. “To be honest, I suspect he’s older, but we can never know,” explained his vet in The Washington Post .
Although most members of his species live to around 150, Jonathan has overtaken Tu’I Malila, a radiated tortoise ( Astrochelys radiata ) owned by the royal family of Tonga who died at 188 years old in 1966. A dubious local legend claims Tu’I Malila was gifted to them in 1777 by Captain James Cook , remembered for achieving the first European contact with Australia, Hawaii and New Zealand.
What is known for sure is that in 1882 Jonathan the ancient tortoise was gifted to the then-governor of Saint Helena, a remote island brought under the British Crown in 1833 and best remembered for being the site where Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled. Jonathan has been living at Plantation House, the governor’s mansion, ever since. Surprisingly, he remains sexually active in his old age and has become a bit of a celebrity.
Two giant tortoises, with Jonathan the tortoise on the left, photographed in the late 1800s. Jonathan is believed to have been born in 1832, making him the oldest living land-based animal in the world. ( Public domain )
Tortoises are part of the reptilian chelonian order, a.k.a. turtles, which includes terrapins, turtles and land-dwelling tortoises. Existing all over the planet, not only did turtles, in some shape or form, live alongside dinosaurs and even before them, they appear to have survived more than one mass extinction , probably due to their slow metabolism and aquatic habitat. While scientists are still debating the evolution of the turtle , some paleontologists believe that the earliest known turtle was the Eunotosaurus africanus , who lived about 260 million years ago.
But, let’s get back to Jonathan. Within the tortoise’s lifetime Queen Victoria came to the throne, Britain abolished slavery, the Russian Revolution took place, the first photograph was taken, light bulbs were invented, there have been two world wars, and countless monarchs and world leaders have come and gone. While chelonians have survived almost every earthly disaster to have occurred over millions of years, Jonathan the tortoise has seen the advent of the plastic problem in our oceans and landfills. This, along with increasing pollution and climate change, could ultimately see the decimation of his species.
Top image: Jonathan the tortoise at Plantation House on Saint Helena Island in the South Atlantic. Source: Darrin Henry / Adobe Stock
By Cecilia Bogaard