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World’s Oldest Tortoise Has Lived Through 40 US Presidents

Jonathan, the Seychelles giant and oldest tortoise, peacefully lives after seeing 40 US presidents
Jonathan, the Seychelles giant and oldest tortoise, peacefully lives on even after 40 US presidents in his lifetime. Credit: Joachim S. Müller / Flickr / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Jonathan, the oldest tortoise of the Seychelles, just celebrated his 191st birthday, securing his position as the world’s oldest living land animal for another year. The reptile has been calling the remote south Atlantic island of Saint Helena his home since 1882, when he was presented as a gift to the island governor.

Born around 1832, his age is a rough estimate, considering he was already a mature tortoise, at least fifty years old when he made Saint Helena his abode. However, the fascinating part is that he might be even older than we believe.

Our certainty about Jonathan’s age was confirmed when an old photograph from 1882 to 1886 captured Jonathan munching on grass in the residency gardens of William Grey-Wilson, the Governor of St. Helena, during that period. This discovery adds another layer to the mystery of Jonathan’s remarkable and enduring life.

Two Guinness World Records

Jonathan received an official birthday on December 4, 1932, as declared by Nigel Phillips, the governor of St. Helena, in November of the previous year. This extraordinary Seychelles giant tortoise holds not just one but two Guinness World Records (GWR).

He is recognized as the oldest known living land animal and the oldest chelonian, a category that includes tortoises, turtles, and terrapins due to their hard outer shell. Jonathan snagged the title of the world’s oldest living turtle / chelonian in 2021, surpassing Tu’i Malila (c. 1777–1965), a radiated tortoise that lived to a ripe old age of at least 188.

Life expectancy for Seychelles giant tortoises

While the average life expectancy for Seychelles giant tortoises is around 150 years, Jonathan, despite being blind with cataracts and losing his sense of smell, is in surprisingly good health.

According to St. Helena veterinarian Joe Hollins, Jonathan maintains a robust libido and a hearty appetite. Interestingly, he still tries to mate with his fellow tortoises!

“Although aware of the responsibility and that, of course, he will die one day, I believe we have greatly enhanced his life expectancy,” Hollins said. “We introduced once-weekly feeding of good calorific food and this has transformed him, demonstrating probable micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.”

Evolution of Jonathan’s classification

Initially identified as an Aldabra giant tortoise from the Aldabra Atoll within the Seychelles archipelago, Jonathan’s classification evolved after experts and the Seychelles Nature Trust examined his shell. Their findings suggested that he is more likely a rare Seychelles giant tortoise.

This species faced a grave threat from European sailors, who nearly drove it to extinction. It was considered extinct until researchers examined captive specimens and discovered surviving individuals. As per the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, there are currently around eighty recorded globally.

Having witnessed two world wars, the tenure of forty U.S. presidents, and the governance of thirty-one St. Helena governors, Jonathan now peacefully shares his space with three other giant tortoises named Emma, Fred, and David.

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