Harriet the Tortoise Dies at 176


On this day in 2006, Harriet the tortoise died of a heart attack at the grand old age of 176, in her enclosure at Australia Zoo, Queensland.

Harriet was a Galapagos Tortoise (Geochelone Nigra Porteri) who lived from around 1830, and was the third oldest tortoise known to scientists. The second oldest was Tu’i Malila, a Radiated Tortoise from Madagascar who was gifted to the Tongan royal family by Captain James Cook, and died on 19 May 1965 at 188 years old. The oldest on record was Adwaita, an Aldabra Giant Tortoise from the Seychelles, which was a pet of General Robert Clive of the British East India Company and later an inhabitant of Alipore Zoological Gardens of Kolkata. She died on 23 March 2006 at the age of 255.

Although Adwaita and Tu’i Malila were a little older, Harriet had the most extraordinary life of all. She was captured by Charles Darwin in 1835, on the Pacific archipelago of Galapagos Islands that eventually inspired his theory of evolution. He was travelling around the world on the HMS Beagle, and when he sailed away from the islands he was stowing as many as forty giant Galapagos Tortoises. Some were stewed into tasty turtle soup, some were kept as souvenirs for the crew, and a lucky few (including Harriet) were kept alive as scientific specimens.

When Harriet was collected in 1835 she was 11 inches in length, which suggested that she was already around five years old, but she continued to grow and grow and ended up in the possession of John Clements Wickham. After retiring from the Royal Navy in 1841, Wickham—who was First Lieutenant and later Captain of the Beagle—retired to Australia and brought Harriet and two other tortoises with him; then in 1860 he emigrated to Paris, and donated them all to the Brisbane Botanic Gardens.

While living in the gardens she was actually named Harry (after one of the employees, Australian horticulturalist and writer Harry Oakman), and it was only in the 1960s that she was correctly identified as a female tortoise, and had her name changed to Harriet. In 1987 she was moved to the Australia Zoo, and in 2005 she celebrated her 175th birthday there; which was very well attended by her human friends and associates.

The Australia Zoo was best known as the home of Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” until his unfortunate death by stingray barb on 4 September 2006. The long and eventful life of Harriet—the third oldest animal ever recorded—connected an unlikely array of the world’s best-known wildlife experts, from Darwin to Irwin.

Credit: © Australia Zoo/Handout/Reuters/Corbis
Caption: Harriet poses with Steve and Terri Irwin at Australia Zoo.