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Jonathan the tortoise

The world’s oldest land resident?

blank [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas, Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Jonathan is believed to be the world’s oldest living land animal.

Jonathan the tortoise [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Jonathan the tortoise

Go to: Who is ‘Jonathan’?So how old is Jonathan, really?What type of tortoise is he?Why ‘Jonathan’?How fast is Jonathan?Vet’s ReportAn interview with Jonathan?Other giant tortoises at Plantation HouseTortoises are not toys!Article: “Meet Jonathan, St. Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise”Article: “Jonathan’s birthday…what ancient history never taught us”

Top Twenty things to do [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Visiting Jonathan is one of our Top Twenty things to do during a visit to St. Helena.

Top Twenty things to do [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Who is ‘Jonathan’?

Click for: Jonathan in 2016 (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Jonathan in 2016{13}

Jonathan is one of several giant tortoises that live in the grounds of Plantation House, the residence of the Governor of St. Helena. Jonathan is the most famous because he is the oldest - indeed he may be the oldest living land animal on the planet!

Visitors to Plantation House can see the tortoises roaming free in the grounds. If you’re lucky, Jonathan may pose for a photo!

It could be argued that Jonathan has earned the status of a National Symbol, but this has never been publicly discussed.

The local 5 pence coin has Jonathan on its reverse.

So how old is Jonathan, really?

Jonathan the tortoise “in a 1900 photograph” [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Click for: Jonathan, probably 1860s (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Naturally, nobody is really sure. Tortoises don’t carry a ‘date of manufacture’ mark and the colonial government of St. Helena had other more pressing things to worry about than tortoises.

However, the belief is that he was brought to the island aged about 50 back in 1882, which would make his date of birth 1832. Only he knows his actual age and he isn’t saying (though what he does say is recorded below).

Stories abound here that he met St. Helena’s other famous resident Napoleon Bonaparte. But unless Jonathan’s age and arrival date have been misrecorded by more than sixty years this cannot be true, which is sad because the idea of the former conqueror of most of Europe chatting away to a tortoise is appealing.

He was always famous on St. Helena, but came to world media attention in 2008 when the UK Daily Mail newspaper ran a story using this old photograph (right, top). Said to have been taken in 1900 and to show Jonathan with a Boer prisoner and his escort, the paper claimed this showed that at 176 he was the world’s oldest living animal. The St. Helena Independent carried a version of the story, including quotes from local people speculating about Jonathan’s age and the reasons for his longevity (more about this below.) However, further research{2} has shown that this is only part of a larger photo (below, right). The larger photo has been dated somewhat earlier, sometime before 1886, and the humans are described in its accompanying text thus: “these men are good types of Saint Helenians”. Measurements show Jonathan (on the left) to be c.48 inches long - his length today, showing that he was fully grown by 1886. This does not confirm his age but it helps!

Island vet in 2015 Joe Hollins said “We have a record that he was landed in 1882 fully grown. We are told that fully grown is at least 50 years of age, and so this is how we extrapolate back to a hatching date of 1832, and forward to a current age of 183. Life expectancy is 150.”

So how old is Jonathan, really? Why not come and examine him for yourself? Maybe if you offer him some lettuce he’ll share his secrets with you.

Jonathan in 1942 with Governor W Bain-Gray [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Jonathan in 1942 with Governor W Bain-Gray (1941-1946){3}

In his (slightly) younger days, Jonathan was a lot more lively, and regularly escaped from his enclosure… A 1960s worker at ‘A&F’{4} recalls:

I was also responsible for Jonathan. We used to have to carry him from Butcher’s Graves up in a big stretcher. He used to bust through any fence. He to used to go up Bishopsholme, up the church, even Rock Cottage. He would crawl up there some way!

What type of tortoise is he?

Click for: Jonathan, in closeup (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Jonathan, in closeup

According to Jonathan’s Wikipedia article (yes, he’s famous enough to feature), “Jonathan is a Seychelles Giant tortoise (dipsochelys hololissa)”. It goes on to say that “The [Daily Mail] article erroneously stated that Jonathan was of the species testudinipae cytodira. This is nonsensical, and appears to be a double misspelling as well as a reference not to his species, but rather to his family, testudinidae and genus, cryptodira respectively.”. However if you look up the Wikipendia page for dipsochelys hololissa it states that the Sechelles Giant Tortoise is extinct, although it does mention that “it has been suggested that some Seychelles island tortoises (12 known individuals) survive in captivity. The report of oddly-shaped captive tortoises prompted The Nature Protection Trust of Seychelles to examine the identity of the living tortoises. Examination of museum specimens of the ‘extinct’ Seychelles species by Dr. Justin Gerlach and Laura Canning seemed to show that some living tortoises possess characteristics of the extinct species. However, recently published scientific papers on the genetics of the Seychelles and Indian Ocean tortoises provide conflicting results. Some studies suggest only one species was present historically but others support the presence of three, closely related species.”.

An examination (by a visiting vet in June 2009) of Jonathan’s rear end may have settled the matter. Apparently his ‘anal scut’ (a part of his shell at the rear end) is not divided which makes him definitely a Seychelles Giant tortoise - at least until the next expert arrives.

Again, only Jonathan really knows about his ancestry.

Why ‘Jonathan’?

Jonathan gets a bath [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Jonathan gets a bath{5}

Why not? It is thought that he was nameless for the most part of his residence in St. Helena and was named by Governor Spencer Davis (1932-1938). Why Sir Spencer chose the name Jonathan is not recorded. Indeed, if Google is to be believed, naming Jonathan was Sir Spencer’s sole contribution to St. Helena - it certainly seems to be the only thing for which Sir Spencer is noted.

How fast is Jonathan?

In 2015 a tortoise named Bertie became the world’s fastest tortoise, with a speed of 0.6 MPH (0.97 Km/h, or about 1/50th of our local speed limit). Asked to comment on Jonathan’s possible speed, Joe the vet said: “When he comes forward to get his feed, he gets quite a turn of speed on. I imagine between ½-1 mph!”

Vet’s Report

Joe Hollins, the island’s vet, issued the following report on Jonathan’s health on 7th December 2015:

Jonathan is alive and well! I fed him yesterday as I do every Sunday, and his appetite was vigorous. He’s blind from cataracts, has lost his sense of smell, and so cannot detect food (his fellow giants mug me and can detect the tiniest morsel dropped on the ground), but he has retained excellent hearing.

I literally hand feed him with gloves (welder’s gauntlets!). He knows my voice and so starts mouthing the air for food and I place it so that he bites off chunks as he has no idea where it is. This works well.

There is a chance that he’ll either drop dead tomorrow or live until he’s 250 and see us all off. The feeding has improved him surprisingly. His once blunt and crumbly beak has become sharp and lethal, so he was probably suffering from microdeficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

You can read extracts relating to the Giant Tortoises in Joe Hollins’s 2009 report{6}.

An interview with Jonathan?

Headline for the St. Helena Independent’s December 2008 article [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

To quote from the St. Helena Independent’s December 2008 article:

Saint FM asked Governor Andrew Gurr whether we could have an exclusive interview with Jonathan. The answer was ‘No use. He doesn’t say much. He only groans when he’s mating”{7}

This allowed The St. Helena Independent to lead with this picture (right):

In the same article we also read that naturalist Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks said:

Without suggesting that any scientific proof exists, Jonathan reaching such an exceptional age could be due to the effects of centella asiatica, locally known as “Monkey’s ears”, which is a common herb of pastures on St. Helena. The leaves are rounded and slightly resemble monkey’s ears. It is apparently enjoyed by cattle and sheep and is abundant in the grass sward at Plantation. According to my book on herbs it has many medicinal uses in Asia, it is described as a rejuvenating diuretic herb that clears toxins, reduces inflammation and fever and boosts healing and immunity. In China it is used to make ‘long-life tea’ where a Professor, who drank the tea regularly, reputedly lived to the age of 265 and married 24 times. Perhaps this is what has helped Jonathan reach his grand old age.

Other giant tortoises at Plantation House

Plantation House is home to four giant tortoises: Jonathan, David, Emma and Fredrika. Until recently there were six.

They all feed on grass, but will eat all kinds of fruit and vegetables. At the corner of the lawn there is a water trough, from which they drink. They are most active in the mornings, moving freely about the lawn, but in the afternoon they tend to stay in the one area. By dusk they have settled down for the night.

Jonathan’s companions are more recent arrivals:

Name

Picture

Sex

Arrival

Notes

Emma

 

Female

1969

The Governor of the Seychelles sent her aged about 1 year, together with David.{8}

David

Click for: Tortoise: David (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Male

1969

The Governor of the Seychelles sent him aged about 1 year, together with Emma.{8}

Fredrika

Click for: Tortoise: Frederika (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Female

1991

Presented by Monsieur Martineau the French Consul in 1991; eight weeks old when she arrived.

Jonathan is the sole survivor of three giant tortoises that were imported to St. Helena in the 19th Century. One of the other two died in 1877; its shell can be seen at the London Natural History Museum. The second died in 1918 when it fell over a cliff, breaking its shell. Both of these came from Mauritius.

Two others have arrived and died more recently:

Name

Picture

Sex

Arrival

Notes

Death

Myrtle

Click for: Tortoise: Myrtle (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Female

1972

Came from the Seychelles, at an estimated age of 26 years.

7th July 2016, probably of kidney failure

Speedy

Click for: Tortoise: Speedy (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Male

1958/9

Delivered by a Clan Line merchant ship. Originally in a private house in Jamestown; moved to Plantation House in 1986.

January 2009. His death was never explained.{9}

Tortoises are not toys!

Current best veterinary advice is that riding on tortoises harms them, so it is no longer permitted. But in the ‘before days’ this was not the case, as is illustrated by the photographs below, one of which shows the future King of England riding on Jonathan horseback style, with reins…

Click for: Tortoise rider (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Click for: Tortoise rider (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Click for: Daughter of Governor Harper (Click to see the full-sized image, opens in a new window or tab) [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Daughter of Governor Harper

Future King Edward VIII [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Future King Edward VIII

Article: “Meet Jonathan, St. Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise”

BBC 13th March 2014 By Sally Kettle, St. Helena{1}

Meet Jonathan, St. Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Meet Jonathan, St. Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]
Meet Jonathan, St. Helena’s 182-year-old giant tortoise [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Our world is full of weird and wonderful creatures, many of which amaze scientists and non-scientists, alike. But is it true that a living tortoise could have started its life in the first half of the 19th Century?

Plantation House in St. Helena sits proud amid gumwood trees alive with chirps and whistles. It is the official residence of Mark Capes, Governor of the British Overseas Territories in the South Atlantic. I have not come to see the governor, nor the large brown hillocks which dot the pristine lawns. It’s only when my guide Joe Hollis, the sole vet on the island, bangs on a large metal bowl, that all becomes clear. The hillocks rise and trot surprisingly swiftly towards us.

Meet Jonathan, Myrtle{10} and Fredrika, three of five giant tortoises who live on St. Helena. Their shy friends David and Emma are hiding in the rough.

“He is virtually blind from cataracts, has no sense of smell - but his hearing is good,” Joe tells me. At 182, Jonathan may be the oldest living land creature.

Jonathan is a rare Seychelles Giant. His lawn-fellows hail from the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean. Aldabra Giants number about 100,000, but only one small breeding population of Seychelles tortoises exists.

St. Helena was born as a violent volcano, and along with Ascension and Tristan du Cunha in the South Atlantic, is famed for its isolation and close-knit society. Jamestown, its capital, became a centre of commerce for the East India Company in the 17th Century. Many victims of the slave trade - sick and dying - would spend their final hours on the shores of St. Helena. And then there was Napoleon, in exile. Its inhabitants, known as Saints, share this complex past, and ethnic traits of Africans, Americans, Europeans and Chinese.

Nobody knows why Jonathan ended up in St. Helena. During the 17th Century ships could contain hundreds of easily-stacked tortoises, like a fast-food takeaway. In the Galapagos islands alone around 200,000 tortoises are thought to have been killed and eaten at this time.

How did Jonathan avoid this fate? Maybe he became a curio for Hudson Janisch, governor in the 1880s. Thirty-three governors have come and gone since then, and nobody wants Jonathan to die on their watch. Mr Capes is certainly keen “that he should be treated with the respect, attention and care he surely deserves”.

A photograph taken in 1882 shows Jonathan at his full size, and it can take 50 years to reach that physical maturity.

The years since haven’t always been kind. Tourists would often do whatever it took to get “that” photo. Now, a viewing corridor runs along the bottom of the lawn to keep overzealous sightseers at bay. It was a huge privilege for me to get so up close and personal.

Jonathan loves having his neck stroked. His head extends out from his shell to a surprising length. He snaps for his food - bananas, cabbage and carrots - with some ferocity. Joe almost lost the end of his thumb and has resorted to wearing thick gloves. “He doesn’t mean to nip me,” he says, “he just finds it difficult to locate his food.” Tortoises scrape at the grass with their horny beaks, made from keratin, like nails. Blindness made it hard for Jonathan to find the right vegetation, and due to malnutrition Jonathan’s beak became blunt and soft, adding to his problems finding food. Now there’s a new feeding regime, in place where Joe delivers a bucket of fresh fruit and vegetables every Sunday morning. With this extra nutritional boost Jonathan’s skin now looks plump and feels supple. His beak has become a deadly weapon for anyone attempting to shove a carrot anywhere near his mouth. And he can belch.

Tortoises may be slow but they are noisy, especially when they mate: “A noise like a loud harsh escape of steam from a giant battered old kettle, often rounded off with a deep oboe-like grunt.” Joe reassures me it’s another indicator of good health. Unfortunately, Jonathan’s trysts have not produced young - thus far.

Though giant tortoises like Jonathan can live up to 250 years, the community has already drafted a detailed plan for when he finally pops his shell - dubbed “Operation Go Slow”. It will ensure all runs smoothly when the inevitable happens, in fact his obituary has already been written. It has also been decided that stuffing Jonathan would be a rather morbid and outdated thing to do. Instead his shell will be preserved and will go on display in St. Helena. The Saints would like to raise funds for a life-size bronze statue of him.

When he goes, Jonathan will be mourned by friends and admirers on St. Helena and around the world. But to me, he is also a symbol of a remote society, soldiering on in genuine isolation.

More on Jonathan

  • Seychelles giant tortoises can weigh up to 300kg (660 lbs) and grow to be 1.3m (4 ft) long.

  • Jonathan’s life has spanned eight British monarchs from George IV to Elizabeth II, and 51 prime ministers.

  • It is thought Jonathan was brought to St. Helena from the Seychelles as a mature adult in 1882.

  • If it’s correct that he is 182 years old that would make him about 10 years too young to have met Napoleon Bonaparte, who died in 1821, even if he had spent his whole life on St. Helena.

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

More stories on our page Read articles about St. Helena.

Article: “Jonathan’s birthday…what ancient history never taught us”

By Simon Pipe{11}, published in the St. Helena Independent, 6th February 2015{1}

Jonathan the Tortoise at Plantation House [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

We hate to disappoint the newspaper readers of Holland, but Jonathan the Tortoise will not be celebrating his birthday on 7th February… regardless of what it may say on the Wikipedia website{12}.

Since the exact age of the oldest known living creature on the world can only be guessed at, it was hardly likely that his actual birthday would have been recorded.

So it was somewhat surprising when reporter Tim Kooijman got in touch to ask how the old boy would be celebrating it. He planned to write a story for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. “I’ve noticed on Wikipedia that this coming Saturday is tortoise Jonathan’s birthday,” he wrote. “People here love stories about birthdays and animals.”

Sure enough, a side-panel on the online encyclopedia gave the old boy’s date of birth as 7th February 1832{12} (which is 159 years after the Dutch invaded St Helena).

Tim took it well when it was pointed out that Jonathan’s actual birthday couldn’t possibly be known. He did wonder, though, how the Daily Telegraph could have been taken in, with a website video that put his age at a confidently precise 183.

A quick check was made with Kerisha Stevens at the press office in The Castle, just to check this wasn’t some promotional thing.

“As far as we know Jonathan hasn’t been ‘allocated’ a birthday,” she replied. She wasn’t sure who was responsible for the Wikipedia entry.

Tim said he’d write a story for Algemeen Dagblad all the same, because it was quite amusing. And perhaps he did: it all looks Dutch to us.

Down in Jamestown, though, St. Helena Independent editor Mike Olsson rather liked the idea. “If Wikipedia says it’s his birthday, then we’ll give him a birthday,” he said. He’d have a word with Joe Hollins, the vet who hand-feeds him once a week, and rubs his neck to help the food go down.

“We’ll give him a piece of lettuce, with a candle.”

What - just the one candle?

Ed:
We can always ask Governor Capes to make 7th February Jonathan’s birthday ‘by decree’. I think it is a good idea - still, 183 candles on a piece of lettuce would look ridiculous.
Mike

More stories [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

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closinghumourimage [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]

Laugh at funny jonathan humour - LOL [Saint Helena Island Info:Jonathan the tortoise]


Footnotes:

{1} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged

{2} Attributed to a historian Rosemary Rees.

{3} This photograph begs for a humorous caption! Please contact us with your suggestions!

{4} Agriculture & Fisheries Department of Government of St. Helena, now part of the Environment Management Division.

{5} This photo was taken in March 2016. The St. Helena Independent (quoting the UK Daily Telegraph) stated that this was Jonathan’s first ever bath, though we find this hard to believe. Why now? Perhaps it was in anticipation of the opening of the St. Helena Airport or the arrival of the new Governor, we don’t know.

{6} Note though that this is from 2009 and some facilities have been improved since then. The water trough has gone and been replaced with a better drinking basin, and the tortoise bath is fully cleaned out and functional.

{7} Are governors allowed to say things like that?

{8} According to a newspaper report from 1969, Emma and David were sent here because Jonathan was getting lonely. The report (in the “Reading Eagle”, 11th August 1969) says that Jonathan had started causing trouble - disrupting croquet games by sitting on the balls and upending the benches by the tennis courts at Plantation House. So Governor Dermont Murphy requested a mate from Mahe in the Seychelles and got two for the price of one.

{9} Some say it was related to Governor Gurr evicting him from his favourite haunt, the Courtyard, to make room for the Governor’s dog, forcing Speedy to live on the main lawn.

{10} Who died on 7th July 2016

{11} sthelenaonline.org or sthelenaonline.wordpress.com.

{12} For completeness we should point out that the Wikipedia entry has now been changed.

{13} Photo by Governor Lisa Phillips{1}.


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