A Gift From Darwin

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Harriet the Tortoise’s Birthday

“Certainly the oldest inhabitant in The Crocodile Hunter’s Australia Zoo on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, and surely the oldest inhabitant on the Australian continent, Harriet is a giant Galapagos land tortoise, collected by Charles Darwin on his famous Voyage of the Beagle. With her date of birth calculated to 1830, she’s well into her 18th decade now, although she has some way to go to surpass Darwin’s gift of a tortoise to the King of Tonga that lived to 189!Steve Irwin (TV’s Crocodile Hunter) and his Zoo staff have cared for Harriet since 1987, prior to which she had been at Fleay’s Fauna Sanctuary for 35 years. Indeed, it was there, in 1960, that it was discovered that she was a Harriet and not a Harry! Originally named after the Brisbane Botanical Gardens curator, Harry Oakman, “Harry” had been resident in the Gardens for nearly 100 years until 1952 (when the Gardens’ zoo closed, Dr David Fleay stepped in to take over).

The giant tortoise had been brought to Australia by John Wickham – a former English naval office who had been with Darwin in South America – and when Wickham left for France in the 1860s, Harriet took up residence in the Brisbane Botanical Gardens.

Charles Darwin had brought Harriet and two of her sub-species back to England, in 1835, when she was five years old and about the size of a dinner plate. Checking against Darwin’s records from 1834, Harriet is a Santiago tortoise (Geochelone nigra darwini). While she still ovulates annually, she hasn’t seen another Galapagos tortoise for over 150 years (or more) – and the zoo hasn’t been able to trace a male of her subs species. But she’s not lonely, as she is a favourite of staff and visitors alike, and simply adores company.

With the hope that she will see in her 200th anniversary at least, why not wish her a happy birthday – if anyone deserves respect for living through a lot, it must be Harriet.”

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3 Comments

  1. Jack's Shack September 19, 2005 at 4:33 pm

    Good question, off the top of my head I can say that I do not remember.

  2. Stacey September 19, 2005 at 3:19 am

    Wow, very cool. I wonder what species has the longest life span.

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