At 190, Jonathan the Tortoise Is the World’s Oldest

He will likely celebrate with some of his favorite activities: sunbathing, sleeping, eating, and mating

An close up image of a giant tortoise laying in the grass.
Although Jonathan is now blind and has lost his sense of smell, he continues to engage in his favorite pastimes: sun-bathing, sleeping, eating, and mating. Liam Young

Jonathan, a Seychelles giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea hololissa), will celebrate his 190th birthday this year at his home on the South Atlantic Island of St. Helena, a volcanic British Overseas Territory.

According to the Guinness World Records, the event will make the reptile the oldest-ever living chelonian, the reptile order that includes turtles, terrapins and tortoises. Previously, the record was held by Tu'i Malila, a Madagascar radiated tortoise gifted to Tonga's royal family in 1777 and died in 1965 at 188 years old.

Jonathan arrived in St. Helena as a gift to Sir William Grey-Wilson in 1882, who later became governor of the island. Since then, Jonathan has wandered and grazed the gardens of Plantation House, the governor's residence, where he has seen 31 governors hold office, CNN's Lianne Kolirin reports. Jonathan still resides there with three other giant tortoises: Emma, David, and Fred.

An antique image of a group of men standing behind two tortoises
Jonathan arrived in St. Helena as a gift to Sir William Grey-Wilson in 1882, who later became governor of the island. Not long after, this image was taken with Jonathan seen on the left eating grass on the grounds of Plantation House. Joe Hollins

According to a letter from 1882 when Jonathon first moved to St. Helena from the Seychelles Archipelago, he arrived "fully grown," which would mean he was at least 50 years old. Jonathan may have hatched in 1832, but the almost bicentenarian is likely older.

"To be honest, I suspect he's older, but we can never know," says Joe Hollins, a veterinarian who cares for Jonathan, to the Washington Post's Cathy Free.

To put Jonathan's age into perspective, when Queen Elizabeth II's great-grandmother Queen Victoria ascended the throne in 1837, the tortoise was already five years old.

A photo taken between 1882 and 1886 shows a fully-grown Jonathan munching grass at Plantation House with a group of people, providing further evidence of his suspected age, reports Sanj Atwal for Guinness World Records.

Seychelles tortoises were found on various Indian Ocean archipelagos but went extinct because sailors used them for food on ships. Hollins, who has tended to Jonathan for 13 years, tells the Washington Post that ship crews harvested tortoises because they didn't need food or water for days and were easily stacked.

"It was quite traditional for [tortoises] to be used as diplomatic gifts around the world if they weren't eaten first. Apparently, they were utterly delicious." Hollins tells the Post.

If he was in fact born in 1832, Jonathan has lived through many historical events. To name only a few:

  • President Andrew Jackson's second inauguration in 1833 and the inaugurations of 39 more United States presidents
  • The first photograph of a person was snapped in 1838
  • The incandescent lightbulb was invented in 1878
  • The beginning and end of two World Wars
  • The first steps of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon in 1969

"While wars, famines, plagues, kings and queens and even nations have come and gone, he has pottered on, totally oblivious to the passage of time," Hollins tells the Post. "Jonathan is symbolic of persistence, endurance, and survival and has achieved iconic status on the island."

Although Jonathan is now blind and has lost his sense of smell, he continues to engage in his favorite pastimes: sunbathing, sleeping, eating, and mating.

"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," Hollins explains to Guinness World Records.

The tortoise's favorite foods include bananas, cabbage, carrots, and apples—hand fed to him by Hollins.

To celebrate his birthday, island officials plan to make a series of commemorative stamps, CNN reports. Visitors who make a trip to see Jonathan will receive a certificate featuring a photo of his first known footprint. 

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