Saturday, June 24, 2006

The World's Oldest Known Living Animal Has Died

Born when Queen Victoria was still a teenager, before the motorcar was invented, before commercial steam trains, and before the industrial revolution got properly underway, a giant Galapagos tortoise named Harriet and the last living creature that may have known Charles Darwin, died yesterday at least 175 years of age. She lived a long and eventful life on three continents.

Darwin's Reputed Tortoise Dies at 176:

Harriet is thought to have been one of three tortoises taken from the Galapagos Islands by Darwin on his historic 1835 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. She is believed to have been five years old and the size of a dinner plate when English naturalist Charles Darwin visited South America's Galapagos Islands in 1835. He took her back with him to Britain aboard HMS Beagle. Darwin took three tortoise - Tom, Dick and Harry - unaware the trio were not all boys. It wasn't until the 1950s, after living for more than a century as a male, that Harriet got her new name to accord with her gender.

As a member of an endangered species she was studied by biologists from around the world.

Her capture caused controversy as some, including those at Australia Zoo, believed she was caught by Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who wrote "On the Origin of Species." Darwin took several giant Galapagos tortoises back to London after his epic voyage on board HMS Beagle, which meant Harriet could have played a key role in the theory of evolution.

Some claim that she was one of four giant tortoises known to have been collected by Darwin's expedition to the Galapagos in 1835. The four were loaded on to the Beagle, reaching Plymouth in October 1836, where they fell ill. Two were dead by the following spring. According to biographies offered by Harriet's successive Australian keepers, she was one of the other two, shipped down under in 1841 by John Wickham, a shipmate of Darwin from the Beagle.

This story is supported by the presence of another giant tortoise in the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. With the words "Tom - giant land tortoise died 1929 Brisbane Botanic Gardens" carved on its shell, Tom is thought to be one of three tortoises brought to the country for exhibition in 1841. Harriet may be the third.

Analysis of her DNA by US researchers shows she was almost certainly from Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos. The Beagle's tortoises were taken from Espanola, Santa Maria and San Salvador. But what is not in doubt is Harriet's advanced age - DNA tests made Harriet at least 175.

Civil servant John Wickham brought the Galapagos exhibits with him from London when he came out to the colony in the 1850s to take charge of municipal affairs in what was then the small township of Brisbane.

The 330-pound tortoise was eventually bought by Queensland's Australia Zoo, which is owned by "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin and his wife Terri. Crediting her longevity to a "stress-free life," her caretakers at the Brisbane Zoo, where she had spent the last 17 years of her life as the main atrtraction, announced that she had recently fallen ill and died in her sleep. Senior veterinarian John Dangar told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. on Friday. "She had a fairly acute heart attack and thankfully passed away quietly."

At 176, Harriet died well short of the longevity record of 188 years set by another Galapagos-born tortoise that until his death was the pride and joy of the King of Tonga.

A world treasure in the care and feeding of Steve Irwin, idiot-extraordinaire.

It figures. Another casualty of privatization.

In her death, as in her life, Harriet is showing us that it isn't turtles all the way down.

1 comment:

The Turtle's Back said...

What a great tortoise was Harriet! And I reckon she's what Charles Darwin would look like had he lived that long too! :) Like that fellow in Greek myth that lived so long he turned into a grasshopper. You know, one of Aphrodite's crushes - what was his name?

Ah well, RIP Harriet!