Harriet Celebrates 175 Years

/ by Maggie Wittlin /

Charles Darwin's contemporary marches towards her third century

harrietweb.jpg The birthday girl Photo taken (and also doctored) by Maggie Wittlin in June.

The world’s oldest living animal just got a little older. Harriet, a giant Galapagos tortoise currently residing at the Australia Zoo in Brisbane, celebrated her 175th birthday this Tuesday, November 15th.

Harriet has been around substantially longer than Australia itself, an impressive feat for any resident of the continent, but what lends this ancient reptile her fame is the company she once kept. It is believed that Charles Darwin himself brought Harriet and two other tortoises over from the Galapagos Islands to England in 1835. At that point, the tortoises were each the size of a dinner plate; from that description, scientists estimate the tortoises were about five years old at the time of their relocation. While scientists aren’t sure of Harriet’s exact birthday, the Australia Zoo has made an educated guess.

“We know that the month of November is when the eggs usually hatch, and so we sort of picked the middle of the month,” said Laura Campbell, public relations manager for the Australia Zoo and also celebrity animals therein. Harriet herself was unavailable for comment on her birthday or on her alleged relationship with Darwin.

Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in the 1830s in order to study how tortoises and other species vary between their environments. His discovery that unique species of tortoise existed on each island, and that each species was equipped to handle its island’s environment, contributed to his The Origin of Species.

“[Tortoise’s] shells have different shapes and structures depending on whether they need to reach their neck to get high vegetation or whether they just eat low vegetation,” Campbell said, noting that Harriet is equipped for low feeding.

Campbell added that we know from Darwin’s logs that he brought back three tortoises from the Galapagos Islands. He identified them as male and named them Tom, Dick and Harry. Harry was renamed Harriet in 1960 after correctly being identified as a female.

“Tortoises are extremely hard to sex,” Campbell said. “She was never intended to breed, obviously, otherwise they would have checked.”

Tom and Dick—or perhaps Thomasina and…Dickette?—did not live long enough to be sexed. Dick died in the 1880s and Tom died in 1949. Harriet, however, is still going strong. Campbell said she’s in perfect health and may, evntually, break the longevity record of 188 years, currently held by a Tui Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise (now deceased).

Tuesday’s festivities included a giant Harriet-shaped birthday cake, a chorus of “Happy Birthday” and a feast of delicious hibiscus flowers for the guest of honor.

Originally published November 16, 2005

Tags ecology happiness resilience

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