The oldest living land animal in the world? At 160, it’s Jonathan the turtle
Jonathan the turtle has lived on one of the most remote islands in the world for 140 years. He has become something of a media star recently, because he has just obtained a noble distinction: the oldest living land animal in the world.
Jonathan turns 190 this year. Well, that’s the best estimate of the Chelonian’s age at 440 pounds.
“To be honest, I suspect he’s older, but we can never know that,” said Joe Hollins, the vet caring for Jonathan on the island of St Helena, a tiny British volcanic territory. more than a thousand kilometers from the African coast.
Jonathan has spent most of his life roaming (albeit slowly) with three other tortoises around the grounds of St. Helena’s governor’s residence, Plantation House.
Jonathan is believed to have hatched in 1832, according to a letter which mentions that he arrived as an “adult” on Saint Helena in 1882 from the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean, he said. “Fully mature” in the context of turtles meant at least 50 years old, Hollins said.
A photo taken between 1882 and 1886 shows Jonathan grazing at Plantation House, where he had been presented to the governor of Saint Helena as a gift, according to Hollins.
“It was quite traditional for (turtles) to be used as diplomatic gifts around the world, if they weren’t eaten first,” he said, noting that they were harvested by ship’s crews because that they were stackable and didn’t need food or water for days.
“Apparently they were quite delicious,” he said.
In addition to Jonathan, Hollins takes care of the other turtles that live on the 16 km long island. He also leads a team that takes care of the island’s cats, dogs, cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys and pigs.
But Jonathan, as the group’s senior gentleman, is special, he said.
“I really enjoy caring for him,” said Hollins, noting that at 64 he is 126 years younger than the rare Seychelles giant tortoise he has cared for for 13 years.
“It’s a huge responsibility, but an honor and a privilege for a veterinarian to serve the needs of the world’s oldest known land animal,” he said.
There are probably sharks in the ocean older than Jonathan, Hollins said, but he hasn’t heard of another well-documented land creature that has been alive for more historical events.
Hollins said visitors to Saint Helena, which has a population of around 4,400, are stunned to learn of Jonathan’s staggering lifespan.
The tortoise has seen 31 governors of Saint Helena come and go and was likely alive for President Andrew Jackson’s second inauguration in 1833, as well as the inaugurations of the next 39 US presidents.
“As wars, famines, pestilences, kings and queens and even nations have come and gone, he has gone on, utterly unaware of the passage of time,” Hollins said.
“Jonathan is the symbol of perseverance, endurance and survival and has achieved iconic status on the island,” he added.
It’s not unusual for giant land tortoises to live to be 150 years old, Hollins said, but Jonathan endured longer than most people expected.
The previous known longevity record was held by a radiated tortoise named Tu’i Malila, which was reportedly given to the Tonga royal family in 1777. When Tu’i Malila died in 1965, she was around 188 years old, according to Guinness World Records.
Guinness recently updated its records to reflect that Jonathan is now the world’s oldest land animal, but news of the occasion was greeted the same as most things for the tortoise, according to its caretaker.
“He knows my voice and comes to me like a dog, but I have to accept that he’s mostly Pavlovian because he associates me with food,” Hollins said, noting that Jonathan is now blind and has lost his sense of smell, but always has a healthy appetite.
For more than a decade, he hand-fed carrots, cucumbers, apples and bananas to the turtle, making sure to put on thick welding gloves to protect his fingers from Jonathan’s sharp beak.
“Even through (the gloves), I lost two fingernails,” Hollins said. “But I really like this big crispy reptile. He’s a gentleman turtle.
When Hollins was hired as a veterinarian by the government of Saint Helena, he said Jonathan was in poor health with a dull, crumbly beak and was unable to graze.
“It was clinging to dirt and dry leaves and pulling at the raucous grass,” he said. “After feeding him for a while, we witnessed a miracle: his beak regained its sharpness.”
Hollins said he learned the turtle was deficient in vitamins, minerals and trace elements, which was quickly corrected with a weekly supply of fresh produce.
“He’s been resurrected, so now we can’t stop,” he said, adding that Jonathan turns his beak to kale, but devours hearts of lettuce and sun-ripened pears.
The tortoise also likes to sunbathe and has scared visitors by sprawling on the grass with all four legs and its neck outstretched, he added.
More than once, “Jonathan tricked us into giving us an urgent visit because someone reported him dead,” Hollins said.
He said he knew the day was approaching when a call like this would turn out to be real.
“I’ve been here for four governors, and each said to me with a pleading note, ‘Please Joe – not on my watch,’” Hollins said.
For now, Saint Helena plans to order a stamp featuring Jonathan and possibly hold a national holiday to honor the turtle in 2022, he said.
“When he leaves it will be tough, although we are realistic and prepared,” added Hollins, noting that studies show that giant tortoises do not age like humans, but may simply wear out or die after injury.
“With great care and attention,” he said, “Jonathan can still see many of us in our graves.”