15 November 2005
THE nominal 175th birthday of Harriet the Galapagos tortoise will be celebrated at Steve Irwin’s Australia Zoo on the Sunshine Coast today, but the actual age of the much-loved animal and even its identity remains a mystery.
Some believe the tortoise was collected by English naturalist Charles Darwin in the Galapagos Islands in 1835 when she was about five years old. That makes her one of the oldest creatures on the planet.
Others believe Harriet is another tortoise probably brought to Australia by a whaler at a later date.
Queensland Museum curator of reptiles Patrick Couper said Harriet was an old tortoise, but whether she has been Darwin’s was questionable.
“If you’ve got a new supply of tortoises coming into the gardens, then you’ve got a mixed group,” he said. “Some might have been originals but some weren’t, and without documentation how do you know which was which?”
Mr Couper said some people claimed Harriet might be Earth’s oldest creature, but this could not be correct as Bowhead Whales lived past 200.
Brisbane historian Noel Hall tried to track down the story of Harriet for Botanic Gardens curator Ross McKinnon but ran into too many dead ends.
Mr Hall said it appeared John Clements Wickham, who sailed with Darwin, brought at least one tortoise to Australia in 1843.
“We can’t find the links to Harriet,” Mr Hall said.
“No one can prove or disprove the connection.”
It is conceivable, though, that she was alive at the time Darwin visited the islands.
DNA analysis suggests Harriet was born before the great cull of her species that took place after Darwin’s 1835 visit. This makes her at least 170 years old, and her nominal birthday worth celebrating.
British scientist Paul Chambers, writing in New Scientist magazine, says it is highly unlikely Darwin and Harriet ever met.