Born circa 1832 – five years prior to the coronation of Queen Victoria – Jonathan the tortoise is due to turn 187 years old in 2019. That makes him the oldest-known land animal alive today.
This puts him just one year away from the title of oldest chelonian ever, currently held by Tu’i Malila, a radiated tortoise that reached at least 188 years old. She was owned by the royal family of Tonga between c. 1777 and 1965, and had been presented to them by British explorer Captain James Cook during his third – and final – Pacific voyage (1776–80).
In his lifetime, Jonathan has lived through two world wars, the Russian Revolution, seven monarchs on the British throne and 39 US presidents.
His estimated year of birth also predates the release of the Penny Black, the first postage stamp (1840), the building of the first skyscraper (1885) and the completion of the Eiffel Tower (1887) – the tallest iron structure.
Other human milestones to have taken place in his long life include the first photograph of a person (1838), the first incandescent light bulb (1878) and the first powered flight (1903).
Now the oldest animal in the world – among terrestrial animals – Jonathan has outlived the oldest person ever by around 65 years. The greatest authenticated age for a human is a "mere" 122 years 144 days, achieved by Jeanne Calment (1875–1997) from France.
Watch and read about more record-breaking animals in our Records Showcase
Although originating from the Seychelles in the Indian Ocean, Jonathan has resided on the remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic since 1882.
St Helena is perhaps best known for being the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte – who was exiled here after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. The banished emperor and Jonathan would never have met, though, as the former died more than six decades prior to the arrival of this record-breaking reptile.
When Jonathan was brought to St Helena, he was already fully grown. Based on known data for this species, that would indicate he was about 50 years of age at the time (hence his estimated birth year of 1832 to make him the longest-lived animal on land). Jonathan was gifted to the then-governor of the Overseas British territory, William Grey-Wilson (in office 1890–97), and he has lived at the governor’s residence ever since.
Jonathan's home is the manicured lawns of "Plantation", a Georgian mansion built by the East India Company in 1791–92. Today, he shares the grounds with three other giant tortoises: David, Emma and Fred.
For a long time, Jonathan was identified as an Aldabran tortoise from the Aldabra Atoll, which forms part of the Seychelles archipelago. (All the other tortoises he lives with are Aldabrans.) However, a closer examination of his shell by the Seychelles Nature Trust (and several other zoological professionals) has raised the distinct possibility that he could be a much-rarer Seychelles giant tortoise.
This particular species (some argue "subspecies" or "morphotype" is more accurate) was once believed to be extinct, but there now may be around 80 globally, according to the IUCN’s Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group.
Considering his great age – he is already well beyond his kind’s 150-year average lifespan – Jonathan is in surprisingly good health. He hasn’t escaped completely unscathed, though.
The world's oldest tortoise is virtually blind due to cataracts and seems to have lost all sense of smell, but retains excellent hearing and a healthy appetite. According to his vet (see interview below), he still has "a good libido" too, which is an indicator of sound internal health.
We talked to St Helena vet Joe Hollins – one of Jonathan’s primary carers – to find out more about this extraordinary ancient animal.
GWR: What’s it like treating such an old patient?
Joe Hollins: Although aware of the responsibility and that, of course, he will die one day, I believe we have greatly enhanced his life expectancy. Like any celebrity we have made advance plans for his demise, but hope not to put them into action yet. At an estimated 187 years of age, he has already far exceeded his life expectancy of 150 years.
How does it feel to have such a close relationship with a record-breaking animal?
For a veterinary surgeon, to have the oldest-known living land animal under his care is a great privilege, and something I could never have envisaged happening. I have bonded with him and am very fond of the crusty old reptile!
Can you describe Jonathan’s temperament?
As befits his age, Jonathan is gentle and enjoys the company of people. Although mostly blind due to cataracts, he has very good hearing and responds especially to his name at feeding time. He also has a fascination with the sounds of tennis when the paddock court is in use.
Does Jonathan have a mate?
In spite of his age, Jonathan still has good libido and is seen frequently to mate with Emma and sometimes Fred – animals are often not particularly gender-sensitive!
What is Jonathan’s favourite food? Have his tastes changed as he ages?
Some 10 years ago, improvements were made to Jonathan’s habitat and it was noticed that he [was having problems feeding]. His beak was blunt so that he struggled to scythe the grass (other tortoises have finely grooved beaks resulting in a serrated edge that cuts grass), and he would often try to graze on areas of leaf mould or dirt. His sense of smell seems to be non-existent.
We introduced once-weekly feeding of good calorific food and this has transformed him, demonstrating probable micro-deficiencies of vitamins, minerals and trace elements. He loves banana, but it tends to gum up his mouth. Lettuce hearts, though not very nutritious, are a favourite. He also greatly enjoys cabbage, cucumber, apple, other seasonal fruits, carrots – a good source of dietary fibre that he loves – and any other offerings from Plantation, which provides feed from the kitchens.
Nothing is fed to excess but in moderation and in a balanced mixture. Since doing this, his beak has regained an edge and he is able to graze once more.
What does a typical day involve for Jonathan?
Very relaxed. He enjoys the sun but on very hot days takes to the shade. On mild days, he will sunbathe – his long neck and legs stretched fully out of his shell to absorb heat and transfer it to his core. It’s an odd posture and before now we have had panicked phone calls to say he appeared to have died! On cold winter days, he will dig himself into leaf mould or grass clippings and remain there all day.
What do the residents of St Helena think of Jonathan?
He is a local icon, symbolic of persistence in the face of change, and much loved by the islanders, who see him very much as their Jonathan.
Are visitors able to come and see Jonathan?
Although we have applied some restrictions (unfortunately due to mobbing and inappropriate behaviour by cruise-ship tours), Jonathan and his friends can still be seen by visitors to the island.
Three more ancient animals
Major Mitchell's cockatoo Cookie was 82–83 years old when he passed away in 2016. He first arrived at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois, USA, in May 1934 – when he was estimated to be aged at least one. This also makes Cookie the oldest bird overall recorded to date.
A study by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in California and the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife in Alaska (both USA) suggests that bowhead whales are the longest-lived mammals. One individual is estimated to have reached 211 years old (the median taken from a range of 177–245 years old).
Excluding colonial animals such as coral, the king of longevity is the quahog clam. One of these marine molluscs, collected from the cold waters around Iceland, was determined to be 507 years old by scientists at Bangor University (UK). (Sadly, the clam died during the process of ageing it!). The clam was nicknamed "Ming" after the Chinese dynasty that was in power around the time of his birth.