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Jonathan the tortoise

The world’s oldest land resident?

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.{c}

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

Who is ‘Jonathan’?

Jonathan with a visitor

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 we understand he is 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 depicted on its reverse{1}.

a.k.a. Jono but not Johnathan, Jonothan, Johnothan or John


Jonathan’s Birthday

People often ask us for the date of Jonathan’s Birthday. The answer is We don’t know - it doesn’t seem to have been recorded (see below). We don’t know the day, the month or even the year.

Jonathan 190 logo, 2022

However in 2022 it was proposed that there would be celebrations for his 190th Birthday in the period 2nd to 4th December, with a festival at Plantation House on the 4th, and this plan was sanctioned by Executive Council and Governor Nigel Phillips.

There is precedent for this arbitary assignment of a celebration date. Christians commemorate the birthday of Jesus on 25th December, but there is nothing to suggest that this is the actual date of his birth, so there is a 1/365 chance that it is the correct date{2}. Similarly we celebrate St Helena’s discovery on 21st May each year, even though most modern historians believe this is not the correct date (see our page Discovery of St Helena for more).

It is not currently decided on what date Jonathan’s 191st and subsequent birthdays will be celebrated. When it is we’ll update this page.

The video (below) wished him a Happy Birthday for 2021{3}.

‘Happy Birthday, Jonathan’, 2021{e}

So how old is Jonathan, really?

We believe Jonathan is around years old, but we aren’t certain. Read on to find out why…

Jonathan the tortoise ‘in a 1900 photograph’
Jonathan, probably 1860s

Naturally, nobody is really sure about his date-of-hatching. 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 hatching 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. But unless Jonathan’s age and arrival date have been mis-recorded by more than sixty years this cannot be true{4}, which is sad because the idea of the former conqueror of most of Europe chatting away to a tortoise is appealing. There was a giant tortoise here during Napoleon’s time but it wasn’t Jonathan and there is no documentation that suggests these two ever met either - Napoleon never visited Plantation House and tortoises don’t go on excursions…

Jonathan has been a celebrity on St Helena for a long time, but came to world media attention in 2008 when the Daily Mail ran a story using this old photograph (right, top). Said to have been taken in 1900 and to show Jonathan with a Boer PoW and his escort, the paper claimed this showed that at 176 he was the world’s oldest living animal. The 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{f} 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! It also leaves the identity of the tortoise on the right unknown (see below).

In 2015, Island vet 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 (now years old). Life expectancy is 150.

However, it should be noted that other, contradictory, information exists. Governor Gallwey, writing some time after his term ended in the Journal of the Royal African Society, July, 1941, says:

Two very interesting inmates of the Island, who lived in Government House grounds, were a couple of giant tortoises, weighing about 800 lbs. apiece. They had been presented to the Governor of the Island by the master of a sailing vessel in 1776, and were both going strong when I left the Island in 1911. They would walk away with the heaviest man on their backs without showing any signs of either disapproval or inconvenience. When I arrived in St Helena these two old inhabitants had been at Plantation for 126 years. What age they were when they first arrived, I do not know. One died a few years ago, but I am under the impression that one still exists. The couple, male and female, never raised a family.

If this were correct then Jonathan, the only survivor in 1941, would have been hatched before 1776, at least , and could indeed have met Napoleon. Sadly, we think this unlikely and suspect either that Governor Gallwey was misinformed or his memory of what he was told was inaccurate.

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.

At least Guinness World Records accepts his age: see the article below.


‘mid-life’ crisis

In his (slightly) younger days, Jonathan was a lot more lively, and regularly escaped from his enclosure… A 1960s worker at ‘A&F’{6} 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!

According to a newspaper report from 1969, his behaviour was attributed to loneliness. 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 Dermod Murphy requested a mate from Mahe in the Seychelles and Emma and David were sent here to keep him company - we got two for the price of one!

More about Jonathan?

Below: What type of tortoise is he?Why ‘Jonathan’?How fast is Jonathan?HealthInterview with Jonathan?

Jonathan playing croquet, 1969
Jonathan playing croquet, 1969
Jonathan gets a bath
Jonathan gets a bath{7}
Jonathan in 2016

What type of tortoise is he?

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 Wikipedia page for dipsochelys hololissa it states that the Seychelles 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’?

Why not?

It is thought that Jonathan was nameless for the most part of his residence in St Helena and was only named by Governor Spencer Davis (1932-1938). Why Sir Spencer chose the name Jonathan is not recorded. Indeed, if the Records are to be believed, naming Jonathan was almost Sir Spencer’s sole contribution to St Helena.

How fast is Jonathan?

In 2015 a tortoise named Bertie became the world’s fastest tortoise, with a speed of 0.6mph (about 1/50 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 ½-1mph!


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 micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.

You can read extracts relating to the Giant Tortoises in Joe Hollins’ 2009 report{8}.

Jonathan’s exact weight is unknown as there is no transportable device on the island capable of weighing him and an improvised device would be risky. In 2021 Joe Hollins estimated Jonathan’s weight at between 150Kg and 200Kg.


In April 2018 one of the ‘Noble Lords’ in the UK Parliament asked if Her Majesty’s Government would be paying for an operation to have Jonathan’s cataracts removed to increase the population of Giant Tortoises on St Helena. This from Hansard:

This seems curious. The noble lord should know that tortoises find a mate by smell, not by sight{9} and perhaps also realise that Jonathan has been here years and has never sired any offspring so he is probably either sterile or (as this article suggests), gay. Either way, improving Jonathan’s eyesight, while doubtless of benefit to him, would do nothing to increase the population of Giant Tortoises on St Helena.

An interview with Jonathan?

Headline for the St Helena Independent’s December 2008 article

To quote from The Independent’s December 2008 article:

SaintFM 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{10}

This allowed The Independent to lead with the picture (right). And in 2017 Jonathan’s mating activities came to world attention

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 ‘Monkey’s ears’ centella asiatica, which is a common herb of pastures on St Helena. The leaves are rounded and slightly resemble monkey 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.

Jonathan, recently - maybe years old, but still… (with Emma){h}

Not a Turtle…



Sometimes on social media you will see Jonathan referred to as a turtle. This is quite common and web searches are sometimes made for Jonathan the turtle. Even the Wikipedia defines tortoises in the page entitled Turtle. This may seem odd, but there may be an explanation.

In Italian the two creatures are called tartaruga di terra (tortoise) and tartaruga di mare (turtle). It is easy to see why the two might be aligned, particularly in America where a significant percentage of the population is of Italian descent.

However, Jonathan is British and in British usage, Tortoises are land-based and Turtles are water-based. Jonathan is very definitely land-based so he is a Tortoise.

End of discussion!

Hawksbill Turtles Eretmochelys imbricata and Green Turtles Chelonia mydas occur around the island but are rarely observed{11}. Turtles lay eggs on Ruperts beach which, in recent years, have been successfully hatched and the babies returned to the sea (they do not hatch naturally - it is not warm enough so the St Helena National Trust collects and incubates them; in 2023 41 of the 144 eggs laid hatched and the babies were released back to the sea).

Other giant tortoises at Plantation House

The collective noun for tortoises is a Creep of tortoises!

Below: CurrentPast


Plantation House is home to four giant tortoises: Jonathan, David, Emma and Fredrik[a]. 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:





Age (approx.)


Emma a.k.a. Emily

Tortoise: Emma a.k.a. Emily



The Governor of the Seychelles sent her aged about 1 year, together with David.{12}


Tortoise: David



The Governor of the Seychelles sent him aged about 1 year, together with Emma.{12}


Tortoise: Frederik[a]

Thought Female but now known to be Male


Presented by Michel Dancoisne-Martineau the French Consul in 1991; eight weeks old when [s]he arrived.

We say [s]he because, although thought to be female it has now been established that Frederika is, in fact Frederik - a male. As Jonathan has been reported to attempt mating frequently with Frederik[a] this led various newspapers in 2017 to suggest that maybe Jonathan is gay…see article (below).

In July 2023 there was a fight between David and Fredrik which resulted in Fredrik being turned onto his back and left to die, in an area where his plight would not have been visible from the house or the tortoise viewing area. Fortunately he was spotted in time by visiting vet Joe Hollins, who turned Fredrik the right way up with no long-lasting ill effects. This is apparently not the first time recently when a tortoise has been turned over, though in the other occasion it was David who finished the wrong way up, not after a fight but after an unsuccessful attempt to mount Emma for mating purposes…


1776F1918Never named
1882M Jonathan

It is generally accepted that Jonathan is the sole survivor of three giant tortoises that were imported to St Helena in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The first to arrive was a female, thought to have brought here from Mauritius in around 1776 (if a tortoise did actually meet Napoleon it would have been this one). A second tortoise is thought to have arrived, also from Mauritius, in around 1826, thought to be a male, to keep the female company (and possibly in the hope of breeding). As far as we know neither of the original tortoises had a name…but then Jonathan himself wasn’t named until the 1930s.

Jonathan and companion,1914

One of the original two - the ‘male’ from 1826, it is thought - died in 1877, cause of death unknown (this probably explains why Jonathan was brought here, arriving in 1882). Its shell was sent to the London Natural History Museum, where it was examined and pronounced to be female! The c.1776 female died in 1918 when she fell over a cliff while attempting to lay eggs, breaking her shell.

We have a 1914 photo, said to be of Jonathan and one of his former companions (left), which based on the photograph’s date must be the female from c.1776. We don’t definitively know which is which, but we assume Jonathan to be the larger.

But if you look at the dated-as-1880s photograph (above) you see two tortoises, of equal size, which creates a mystery: if the c.1776 female is smaller than Jonathan, and the 1826 male died in 1877, then the date of the photograph must be pre-1877, except that it could not then show Jonathan who arrived in 1882. One theory is that the photo is actually pre-1880s and shows both the original tortoises - the 1776 female that died in 1918 and the 1826 ‘male’ (later discovered to be female) that died in 1877. If you can help resolve this please contact us.

Interestingly, in May 1921 the ‘Buffalo Commercial’, a newspaper published in Buffalo, New York, USA, published the following:

Sadly, charming though the story may be, it seems its information was at least three years out of date and inaccurate in various details. And as for the 120 year old parrot…

Two others have arrived and died more recently:





Tortoise: Speedy

Male, 1958/9

Delivered by a Clan Line merchant ship. Originally lived in Ruperts and later in a private house in Jamestown. Moved to Plantation House by Governor Baker in 1986. Apparently, according to Governor Baker, Speedy loves to roam indoors and has been known to hide in the ladies cloakroom and then frighten would be occupiers of this room!

January 2009. His death was never explained.{13}


Tortoise: Myrtle

Female, 1972

Came from the Seychelles, at an estimated age of 26 years, she originally lived in a private house in Longwood, and moved to Plantation House in 1991.

7th July 2016, probably of kidney failure

Important Visitor Information

When visiting the tortoises, it is important that you do not startle them. They are used to, and therefore fairly impervious to noise and camera flashes, but can be startled if approached by a stranger - someone whose smell they do not recognise (particularly Jonathan, whose eyesight is failing). When a tortoise is startled it goes into a defence mode which, amongst other things, shuts down its breathing - see our Giant Tortoise Facts (below). This is obviously hazardous to their health; particularly for an individual of Jonathan’s age.

When visiting, please remain within the fenced-off viewing area and do not attempt to get into the paddock with the tortoises unless invited and escorted by a competent person.

Tortoises are QQQQQnotQQQQQ toys!

Current best veterinary advice{14} 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…

Read More

Below: Giant tortoise factsArticle: Tortoises hold key to keeping cells youngArticle: Jonathan’s DNA being researched for cancer-curing propertiesArticle: Introducing Jonathan, the world’s oldest animal on land at 187 years oldArticle: Love and JonathanArticle: Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?Article: Jonathan’s birthday…what ancient history never taught us

Giant tortoise facts


The information below was kindly provided by the island’s Veterinary Service (see local vet).

Below: ShellHead and neckBreathingCirculation and Heat ExchangeHibernationSenses


A tortoise’s shell has remained almost unaltered by two hundred million years of evolution. The shell is basically an extension of the rib cage, which unlike most vertebrates is housed on the outside rather than inside the body. It is made up of two halves: the underneath known as the plastron; and the top known as the carapace. These are fused together at the sides by a bridge.

Head and neck

The tortoise’s head features a toothless jaw, and a pair of small holes called ‘nares’ through which the tortoise breathes, smells and (surprisingly) drinks.

They lack teeth, but their jaws are lined with horny sharp ridges which come together like a pair of pinking shears. They have powerful jaw muscles and their beak edge is sharp. Tortoises are not aggressive but they are quite short sighted and if they mistake your finger for food you could lose your finger!

The tortoise’s neck has five vertebrae, like most other animals, but when they retract it they bend it in a sharp ‘S’ curve to bring it all the way in the shell. They can also touch their elbows in front of the nose and point their hands to either side as they do it, for increased defence.


The main difference between a tortoise’s respiration and ours is the volume of CO² they can contain in their blood. When we hold our breath, the rising CO² in our blood makes us want to start breathing again within a minute or so. Tortoises are much more tolerant of rising CO², allowing them to inhale far less frequently.

Tortoises breathe quite differently to humans since their ribcages cannot move. They force air in and out of their lungs by working their limbs, which can look like shrugging their shoulders. They smell by pumping their throat to move air past their Jacobsen’s Organ; the scent organ most reptiles use.

If you startle a tortoise, its first reaction is to retract its head into the shell and the only way a tortoise can do this is by emptying its lungs. It will sound like the tortoise is hissing. A frightened tortoise can remain for some time with almost empty lungs.

Circulation and Heat Exchange

Tortoises, like other reptiles, are cold blooded. This means they need to seek an external active heat source to keep their body within the optimum temperature range, enabling their vital organs to function properly. Tortoises do this by positioning their carapace toward the sun.

A tortoise’s carapace incorporates tiny pores which help it trap the radiant heat. It’s worth noting that owners of tortoises should never use any oils on their shell, as this may block the pores and significantly hinder their thermo-regulation capabilities.

Just as ours, a tortoise’s heart pumps blood to all the vital organs and muscle groups, but a large amount of blood is also sent underneath the carapace to warm up before circulating around the body. Hence they need to bask in the sun until their shell warms up and in turn warms their blood. When they are cold they don’t move much, if at all. They sleep from the late evening, when the sun loses its power, and are most active in the morning or middle of the day.


Our giant tortoises do not hibernate as such, but on St Helena the weather does get wet and quite cold at times and then they go into partial shutdown; they stop moving around and may even not feed. The habitat they evolved to inhabit in the Seychelles is drier and warmer than St Helena.


Article: Tortoises hold key to keeping cells young

By Tom Whipple, Science Editor, The Times, 24th June 2022{15}


When Jonathan was five, Queen Victoria was crowned. When he was a sprightly sexagenarian he was photographed with Boer War prisoners{16}. As the tortoise from St Helena approaches his third century he’s a bit creaky but, his vet recently said, he has a tremendous libido and still enjoys the ladies when the sun is out.

A new study of tortoises has found that in many cases they hardly seem to age at all. The findings challenge human understanding of ageing and point to tantalising ways that we too might defy it.

We will never be immortal, said Fernando Colchero of the University of Southern Denmark. What we might be able to do, though, is find ways to reduce considerably the increased risk of death with age.

His research strongly implies that there are biological mechanisms that can keep cells youthful. We just have to find them. In humans, a 65-year-old is about 100 times more likely to die in the next year than one aged 30. By the time we reach 100 our chance of seeing our next birthday is worse still - roughly a coin toss. For a paper in ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’, Colchero and his colleagues looked at a database containing 25,000 members of 52 species of tortoises and turtles and found that, for them, this pattern did not hold. In many, ageing was very slow. In some, it appeared to be non-existent.

It wasn’t that their health was perfect. Jonathan may still be vigorous in some respects, but he is also blind. But the chance of dying in any one year did not increase with age.

Colchero says this fits with some ideas in evolutionary theory. Humans have gone for a strategy in which we reproduce soon after we reach maturity. In our past, chances were we would die early of injury or disease.

But tortoises and turtles keep growing once they reach maturity and can be better at reproducing as they age. Safe from injury behind a shell it makes sense for them to play the long game.

There are trade-offs in how much energy you can allocate to survival and how much to reproduction, Colchero said. We choose reproduction, a tortoise chooses survival.

Article: Jonathan’s DNA being researched for cancer-curing properties

By Emma Weaver, SAMS, published in The Sentinel, 17th September 2020{15}


How do you gather DNA samples from a giant tortoise?

With difficulty, St Helena’s veterinarian Joe Hollins told The Sentinel. [His jaw is] mighty powerful - I’ve lost two nails so far. With a gloved hand, I wedge my fingers in his mouth, and with my other hand I have two swabs, and quickly rub his tongue just to pick up saliva.

Joe has performed this labour of love 10 times over the past weeks, in order to gather DNA samples from Jonathan.

Jonathan, at 188 years old, is the oldest known living land animal in the world. And because of his extremely notable age, Jonathan has caught the eye of researchers at Vanderbilt Medical Centre in America.

The researchers believe that Jonathan’s ancient genetic information may prove vital in finding a cure for cancer in humans.

So the Vanderbilt Medical Centre researchers reached out to Joe to gather swabs from Jonathan - the 10 DNA samples Joe gathered were scheduled to be flown off to America on this week’s charter flight.

This week, The Sentinel chatted with Joe about the new research and about Jonathan in general.

The nice thing is - very nicely really - the Americans want to do the research, Joe said. It’s research that would cost us thousands, but they’re doing it for free, and all the data will be put on an international database. So Jonathan’s DNA would be a source of research for the future for other scientists, and that’s great.

Why might Jonathan’s DNA help fight human cancers?

Jonathan’s cells don’t seem to mutate in the same way humans’ do.

This is critical because in humans, it is cell mutations that can cause cancers.

Our cells mutate every day, Joe said. They’re damaged by things like radiation, things we do - people smoke... But we’ve got an immune system that is constantly monitoring for mutated cells and destroying them. A few mutated cells every day, but they’re destroyed. But when that gets out of hand, of course, we get a cancer.

Humans also age - we change shape and size, and we become increasingly at risk of the cell mutations that cause cancers.

Us mammals, we age, Joe said. You know, you can see how people change shape and age. But it seems that as Jonathan’s cells don’t mutate in the same way as humans’, he neither ages nor has cancer risks at anywhere near the same levels we do.

The research suggests that giant tortoises just tend to wear out, Joe said. It’s quite interesting really. So [Vanderbilt Medical Centre] is looking into the DNA. Really it’s not to look for the causes of aging - far more importantly, its cancer research. Why don’t [tortoise cells] mutate? Why don’t they get cancers and we do? What is the key?

In hopes of answering these questions, the researchers will be sequencing Jonathan’s genome.

They’ll also be studying his mitochondrial DNA (the mini genetic material within the cells that convert chemical energy from food into useable energy).

Similar research


This new research will build off a similar study of tortoises that was published in 2018.

For that research it was another famous giant tortoise, Lonesome George, whose DNA was sequenced and studied.

Lonesome George was 100 years old when he passed away in the Galapagos Islands in 2012. He was the last known tortoise of his subspecies.

But six years after he passed, research into his DNA showed that giant tortoises have specialized genes for longevity, immune response and cancer resistance that other vertebrate animals do not possess, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

The research showed tortoises had a greater frequency of genes linked to longevity (compared to those genes in humans); had duplications of genes linked to the immune system (duplications humans don’t have); and possessed tumour-suppressing, DNA repair and stress-prevention genes.

Joe said researchers have been interested specifically in Jonathan in the past as well, but did not receive good enough swabs to conduct studies.

They did this before a few years ago, but unfortunately I don’t think the swabs were very successful and all they got was vegetable DNA (the swabs can’t be done during the day when he’s grazing, because otherwise you just get vegetable DNA), Joe said.

This time, the hope is that the swabs and research will be successful. The new study will look more in-depth at Jonathan’s cancer-related information.

How do we know Jonathan’s age?

Hibernating tortoises can be aged by counting the rings on each plate of the shell. Similarly to the rings of trees, each ring marks one year - a ring forms each time the tortoise hibernates, which happens annually.

But [Jonathan is] non-hibernating, Joe said. Also, Jonathan is so old he has no rings left, they’ve worn off.

So how do we know, then, that Jonathan is 188?

What we rely on is the documentation, Joe said.

Basically, a Governor of 1890- odd wrote a letter saying that Jonathan was landed in 1882 fully grown; and fully grown is about 50 years of age. And we have some other nice documentation in the form of a photograph, which has been confirmed of being about 1883/1884 - so just after he was landed. It’s a picture of [Jonathan], and it has his dimensions on the back, which is fantastic.

Joe said that the measurements of a giant tortoise, once fully grown, won’t really change with age (unlike humans).

[His measurements] are about the same today, Joe said. So good confirmation.

How’s Jonathan doing?

He’s doing fabulously, Joe said. Since we’ve been feeding him once a week with a bit of nutritious food to get him the vitamins, minerals and trace elements, his beak - they call [it] a beak in a tortoise - has sharpened up dramatically so he can now cut grass. It was blunt when I came, crumbly... and he’s put on weight, and he’s more lively as well.

How old might Jonathan get?

It’s almost like [giant tortoises] are immortal, really, Joe said.

Goodness knows, if we keep Jonathan here and keep on feeding him, how long he’ll live. But something might happen - the winters are dangerous, it’s the wrong temperature really. Where he comes from, its hot all year round. So that’s his risk period.

Article: Introducing Jonathan, the world’s oldest animal on land at 187 years old

By Adam Millward, Guinness World Records, 27th February 2019{15}

Born circa 1832 - five years prior to the coronation of Queen Victoria - Jonathan the tortoise is due to turn 187 years old in 2019. That makes him the oldest-known land animal alive today.

This puts him just one year away from the title of oldest chelonian ever, currently held by Tu’i Malila, a radiated tortoise that reached at least 188 years old. She was owned by the royal family of Tonga between c. 1777 and 1965, and had been presented to them by British explorer Captain James Cook during his third - and final - Pacific voyage (1776-80).

In his lifetime, Jonathan has lived through two world wars, the French Revolution, seven monarchs on the British throne and 39 US presidents.

His estimated year of birth also predates the release of the Penny Black, the first postage stamp (1840), the building of the first skyscraper (1885) and the completion of the Eiffel Tower (1887) - the tallest iron structure.

Other human milestones to have taken place in his long life include the first photograph of a person (1838), the first incandescent light bulb (1878) and the first powered flight (1903).

Now the oldest animal in the world - among terrestrial animals - Jonathan has outlived the oldest person ever by around 65 years. The greatest authenticated age for a human is a ‘mere’ 122 years 144 days, achieved by Jeanne Calment (1875-1997) from France.

Although originating from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Jonathan has resided on the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic since 1882.

St Helena is perhaps best known for being the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte - who was exiled here after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The banished emperor and Jonathan would never have met, though, as the former died more than six decades prior to the arrival of this record-breaking reptile.

When Jonathan was brought to St Helena, he was already fully grown. Based on known data for this species, that would indicate he was about 50 years of age at the time (hence his estimated birth year of 1832 to make him the longest-lived animal on land). Jonathan was gifted to the then-governor of the Overseas British territory, William Grey-Wilson (in office 1890-97), and he has lived at the governor’s residence ever since.

Jonathan's home is the manicured lawns of ‘Plantation’, a Georgian mansion built by the East India Company in 1791-92. Today, he shares the grounds with three other giant tortoises: David, Emma and Fred.

For a long time, Jonathan was identified as an Aldabran tortoise from the Aldabra Atoll, which forms part of the Seychelles archipelago. (All the other tortoises he lives with are Aldabrans.) However, a closer examination of his shell by the Seychelles Nature Trust (and several other zoological professionals) has raised the distinct possibility that he could be a much-rarer Seychelles giant tortoise.

This particular species (some argue ‘subspecies’ or ‘morphotype’ is more accurate) was once believed to be extinct, but there now may be around 80 globally, according to the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.

Considering his great age - he is already well beyond his kind’s 150-year average lifespan - Jonathan is in surprisingly good health. He hasn’t escaped completely unscathed, though.

The world's oldest tortoise is virtually blind due to cataracts and seems to have lost all sense of smell, but retains excellent hearing and a healthy appetite. According to his vet (see interview below), he still has a good libido too, which is an indicator of sound internal health.

We talked to St Helena vet Joe Hollins - one of Jonathan’s primary carers - to find out more about this extraordinary ancient animal.

GWR: What’s it like treating such an old patient?

Joe Hollins: Although aware of the responsibility and that, of course, he will die one day, I believe we have greatly enhanced his life expectancy. Like any celebrity we have made advance plans for his demise, but hope not to put them into action yet. At an estimated 187 years of age, he has already far exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years.

GWR: How does it feel to have such a close relationship with a record-breaking animal?

Joe Hollins: For a veterinary surgeon, to have the oldest-known living land animal under his care is a great privilege, and something I could never have envisaged happening. I have bonded with him and am very fond of the crusty old reptile!

GWR: Can you describe Jonathan’s temperament?

Joe Hollins: As befits his age, Jonathan is gentle and enjoys the company of people. Although mostly blind due to cataracts, he has very good hearing and responds especially to his name at feeding time. He also has a fascination with the sounds of tennis when the paddock court is in use.

GWR: Does Jonathan have a mate?

Joe Hollins: In spite of his age, Jonathan still has good libido and is seen frequently to mate with Emma and sometimes Fred - animals are often not particularly gender-sensitive!

GWR: What is Jonathan’s favourite food? Have his tastes changed as he ages?

Joe Hollins: Some 10 years ago, improvements were made to Jonathan’s habitat and it was noticed that he [was having problems feeding]. His beak was blunt so that he struggled to scythe the grass (other tortoises have finely grooved beaks resulting in a serrated edge that cuts grass), and he would often try to graze on areas of leaf mould or dirt. His sense of smell seems to be non-existent. We introduced once-weekly feeding of good calorific food and this has transformed him, demonstrating probable micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. He loves banana, but it tends to gum up his mouth. Lettuce hearts, though not very nutritious, are a favourite. He also greatly enjoys cabbage, cucumber, apple, other seasonal fruits, carrots - a good source of dietary fibre that he loves - and any other offerings from Plantation, which provides feed from the kitchens. Nothing is fed to excess but in moderation and in a balanced mixture. Since doing this, his beak has regained an edge and he is able to graze once more.

GWR: What does a typical day involve for Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: Very relaxed. He enjoys the sun but on very hot days takes to the shade. On mild days, he will sunbathe - his long neck and legs stretched fully out of his shell to absorb heat and transfer it to his core. It’s an odd posture and before now we have had panicked phone calls to say he appeared to have died! On cold winter days, he will dig himself into leaf mould or grass clippings and remain there all day.

GWR: What do the residents of St Helena think of Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: He is a local icon, symbolic of persistence in the face of change, and much loved by the islanders, who see him very much as their Jonathan.

GWR: Are visitors able to come and see Jonathan?

Joe Hollins: Although we have applied some restrictions (unfortunately due to mobbing and inappropriate behaviour by cruise-ship tours), Jonathan and his friends can still be seen by visitors to the island.

In 2022, with Jonathan aged 190, Guinness World Records declared him to be the oldest tortoise ever.

Article: Love and Jonathan

Published in The Sentinel, 20th December 2018{15}

I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan.

An American couple - James Swanson and Erica Munkwitz - have travelled from Washington D.C. to St Helena Island, spurred by the above statement of Erica’s.

I thought, if that’s all I have to do to get her, I’m planning the trip! That sounds like a great deal for me, James said.

For around seven years now, Erica has been enthralled with St Helena’s oldest resident - Jonathan the tortoise. In the SAMS Radio 1 studio on Thursday, Erica said that as a university professor of British history, she finds Jonathan’s age incredibly interesting.

As a historian - in America we don’t have anything that’s old. Nothing. Thirty years old and it’s considered ancient, Erica said. And to know that there was a living, breathing animal that’s almost two centuries old… To imagine all the things that Jonathan has seen, or experienced, or that have happened while he’s been alive - everything that has made our modern world… That just fascinated me; absolutely stunned me. And so I just wanted to go and see him and be in that presence - that historical presence. He is a living monument. He’s not made of stone, he’s not made of concrete; he is a living, breathing animal that has been on this planet for that long. I was just blown away.

So blown away, that when she met James two years ago, the statement ‘I will marry the man who takes me to St Helena to meet Jonathan’ was one of the fist things she said to him. And to his credit he didn’t think I was crazy, Erica said. He thought it was a madcap adventure, and he was more than supportive and said ‘we will definitely do this.’

And on Wednesday, the ‘madcap adventure’ successfully brought on an engagement. After finally meeting and helping to feed Jonathan, and after a meal at Jonathan’s residence of Plantation House, James got down on one knee, with Jonathan watching, and asked Erica to marry him.

And I said - to Jonathan, ‘should we accept?’ And I believe Jonathan said ‘yes;’ and so I, of course, said ‘yes, I will marry you,’ Erica said. James and Erica arrived to St Helena on Dec. 8 and will depart Dec. 29. The couple is also writing a history article for the Smithsonian Magazine while on the island, and is also enjoying hikes and getting to know not only Jonathan, but the rest of the island’s population as well.

The Sentinel credited Samantha Reinders for the photo:

Article: Is world’s oldest tortoise GAY?

By Fiona Parker, Daily Mail, 19th October 2017{15}

Daily Mail 20171019

Long-term relationships often lead to slowly uncovered secrets about partners, but Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, was in for a shock after 26 years of enjoying a physical relationship with what keepers thought was a female. Elderly Frederica who lives on St Helena with Jonathan is actually Frederic.

Many people who have been in long-term relationships will tell you they slowly uncovered secrets about their partner over the years. But none of them are likely to have been as surprised as Jonathan, the world’s oldest tortoise, when he discovered something ground-breaking about his lover of 26 years.

Jonathan 1990
Not a 1900 photo

At 186 years old, Jonathan is the most senior resident of St Helena, a British Overseas Territory 1,200 miles off the coast of southern Africa. He arrived on St Helena in his thirties, as a gift to the governor. He also famously once posed with prisoners held captive on the island during the Boer war.

But late into his eighties, Jonathan became irritable and began knocking over benches and interrupting cricket games between residents on the lawn in front of the governor’s Georgian mansion.

Vets decided he needed a girlfriend and in 1991 he was given a mate. Romance blossomed with Frederica and it wasn’t long before the couple began enjoying regular mating sessions every Sunday morning, The Times reported. But despite their amorous antics, the pair never had any young. Now, almost three decades after the romance began, the reason has been revealed. When vets went to repair a lesion on the tortoise’s shell it was discovered that Frederica was actually a Frederic, putting a whole new spin on the relationship.

The island’s vet Catherine Man said the pair were creatures of habit and ate and slept at set times, living off a healthy diet of vegetable titbits and vitamins. But Jonathan now suffers from cataracts and his sense of smell is gone.

A bill was introduced last year to allow same-sex marriage on the island, which has a population of 4,255, but it was withdrawn after local outrage. Consultations are being held across the island to canvass opinion on whether a bill should be presented to the council before a court case that is set to challenge the current law on discrimination grounds.

Our Comment: This piece is amusing but, typically, full of errors. Frederik[a] could hardly be described as ‘elderly’; Jonathan arrived aged at least 50; the photo was pre-1886 and not with Boer prisoners; and only a few noisy people objected to the Marriage Bill - most Saints treat minorities equally. Still at least they didn’t manage to make yet another dig at our most useless airport

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

By Simon Pipe, 6th February 2015{15}

Jonathan the tortoise at Plantation House

We hate to disappoint the newspaper readers of The Netherlands, but Jonathan the Tortoise will not be celebrating his birthday on 7th February… regardless of what it may say on the Wikipedia website{17}.

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 encyclopaedia gave the old boy’s date of birth as 7th February 1832{17} (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?

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.


{a} Social Media User{18}{b} Sainte Hélène Voyage{c} Dylan Thomas, ‘Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night’{d} The BBC.{e} Jonathan Mann{f} By historian Rosemary Rees{g} Governor Lisa Phillips{h} Governor Lisa Honan{i} Andrew Turner


{1} Prior to 1988 they had a The Wirebird.{2} So why choose 25th December? The answer is simple: As Christianity spread north it encountered northern-European peoples who celebrated the winter Solstice on 21st December with pagan rituals (dancing, feasting, drinking, etc.). It was thought that these peoples would be reluctant to convert to Christianity if it meant giving up their winter feastival. So Christianity designated 25th December as Jesus’ birthday, and hence the pagans could adopt Christianity without having to give up their festival; only shifting the reason and (slightly) the date. Incidentally, this explains why modern Christmas celebrations incorporate so many pagan features - Christmas trees; Christmas dinner; lots of alcohol; etc.{3} In December 2022, the month in which his designated 190th Birthday was celebrated, this video alone accounted for around 50% (by volume) of all our downloads. That same month, this page also far exceeded all the others for the number of visitors.{4} See other debunked myths.{5} This photograph begs for a humorous caption! Please contact us with your suggestions!{6} Agriculture & Fisheries Department of Government of St Helena, now part of the Environment Management Division.{7} This photo was taken in March 2016. The St Helena newspapers 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.{8} 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.{9} Otherwise all the rocks lying around would be…{10} Are governors allowed to say things like that?{11} Green Turtle seen off the Wharf steps: [Image, right]

Green Turtle
Green Turtle{i}.

{12} See here for how Emma and David came to be here.{13} 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.{14} You can contact our local vet for more details.{15} @@RepDis@@{16} Actually, no he wasn’t! See this explanation.{17} For completeness we should point out that the Wikipedia entry has now been changed.{18} Posted on Social Media and used with the poster’s permission but they wish to remain anonymous.