The Extraordinary Life of Jonathan: The World’s Oldest Living Land Animal

By Doug Williams
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The Extraordinary Life of Jonathan: The World’s Oldest Living Land Animal

Doug Williams
 
 
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Surrounded by lush pastures adorned with trees sits Plantation House, a stone built Georgian house located on the remote island of St. Helena, a British territory in the South Atlantic Ocean.

Here, in the grassy grounds of the Governor’s Residence, lives Jonathan, the most famous of St. Helena’s residents.

Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise (Dipsochelys hololissa) living in the grounds of Plantation House, the Governor’s residence on the island of St Helena.
Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise (Dipsochelys hololissa) living in the grounds of Plantation House, the Governor’s residence on the island of St Helena.

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Jonathan, suffering from cataracts and a lack of smell, grazes in the lush, green fields of Plantation House. The oldest foreign resident of St. Helena was thought to be at least 50 years old when he arrived in 1882 from the Seychelles, says John Virata, a writer for Reptile Magazine.

Who is Jonathan?

Two giant tortoises photographed in the grounds of Government House, St. Helena. The tortoise on the left is Jonathan, estimated to have hatched circa 1832 and still living as of 2018.
Two giant tortoises photographed in the grounds of Government House, St. Helena. The tortoise on the left is Jonathan, estimated to have hatched circa 1832 and still living as of 2018.

It was not until sometime during the 1930s that St. Helena’s Governor, Sir Spencer Davis, named the tortoise. There is no record as to why he chose the name “Jonathan.” The reptile, a rare Seychelles Giant Tortoise, may be the oldest known living land animal in the world.

Younger Days

Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise
Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise

Saint Helena Island Info quotes a former Plantation House worker, who shared the responsibility of caring for Jonathan during the 1960s, as saying that the tortoise was much more vigorous in his younger days and regularly escaped from his enclosure.

The workers would have to carry the large tortoise on a stretcher back to his enclosure. In 1969, tired of having his croquet games disrupted by the mischievous animal, Governor Dermod Murphy asked for a mate for Jonathan to be sent from the Seychelles in hopes that the tortoises would form a bond and keep Jonathan out of trouble.

The Governor’s request was granted, and he was gifted two tortoises, Emma and David.

A Fragile, Old Gentleman

Giant tortoise Jonathan estimated 150 to 200 years at Plantation House, St. Helena Island
Giant tortoise Jonathan estimated 150 to 200 years at Plantation House, St. Helena Island

Jonathan spent much of his life consuming an unhealthy diet of leaves, grass, and twigs. It wasn’t until after his arrival at St. Helena, according to Livescience, that veterinarian Dr. Joe Hollins implemented a change in the tortoise’s nutrition.

The aging tortoise, who sported a soft and blunt beak making him an inadequate grazer, is now being served more nutritious meals consisting of carrots, cucumbers, bananas and guava.

According to Hollins, “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.” Though he has no sense of smell and poor eyesight, Jonathan still has excellent hearing.

The effects of aging have also not stifled this old gentleman’s libido. Jonathan is known to be quite keen on the youngest tortoise of Plantation House.

The Love Life of Jonathan

In 1991, the French Consul sent a gift to St. Helena: an 8-week-old tortoise named Frederica. The animals showed an immediate bond and were smitten since Frederica’s arrival.

John Virata reports in Reptile Magazine that Jonathan visits Frederica every week for a “proverbial romp in the hay, but to no avail.” The lack of effective mating is due to the recent discovery of Frederica’s true gender. After 26 years, keepers of the tortoises learned that “Frederica” is indeed a “Frederic.”

The discovery was made while Frederic was being treated for a lesion on her (his!) shell. Upon closer inspection, veterinarians discovered that Frederic has a slight shell deformity that makes it hard to sex him by the most common method of checking the underside of his shell, called the plastron.

The plastron of a male tortoise is slightly concave and has a wider shell notch towards the tail end than females.

This unexpected gender revelation has not silenced the lovers, who continue to share a strong bond. Jonathan extends his affection and appreciation more towards Frederic than female tortoises such as Emma.

A young school girl visiting Jonathan the famous giant tortoise on St. Helena Island
A young school girl visiting Jonathan the famous giant tortoise on St. Helena Island

Thought of as a national symbol, Jonathan lives his life modestly. The elderly tortoise is strong and healthy. Hollins reports that Jonathan’s steady libido and health show signs that we can expect him to be around for a while longer, even though he has far exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years.

 
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