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Who is Harriet the Turtle?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Harriet the turtle was perhaps the most famous tortoise in the world, until her death in 2006. Believed to be collected by Charles Darwin on his expedition to the Galapagos Islands, Harriet lived a long and presumably happy life in zoos around the world. Although some of her story is estimated from accounts, she is believed to have been approximately 176 when she died at the Australia Zoo.

"Harriet the turtle" is actually a misnomer, as she was a Galapagos tortoise, believed to be of the subspecies Geochelone elephantopus porteri. Although it is widely believed that Harriet the turtle was found by Charles Darwin, more recent studies suggest that Darwin may have never visited the island where the tortoise was born. DNA evidence estimates that Harriet the turtle was born in 1830. This would make her five years old at the time of discovery, based on the legend that Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835.

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The story of Harriet’s early life in captivity is somewhat confusing and contradictory. It is believed she was given to the Botanic Gardens in Brisbane, Australia around 1860, by the former first mate of Darwin’s ship the HMS Beagle. Until the 1950s, Harriet was believed to be a male and was called Harry. She was purchased by an Australian naturalist named David Fleay when the Botanic Gardens closed in 1952. Fleay renamed the tortoise Harriet upon discovering her biological sex, and included information about her in many of his publications.

Most of Harriet’s history would be a mystery until 1987, when Harriet the turtle was moved to the Queensland Reptile Park, which would later come to be called Australia Zoo. Under the care of the famous Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin, Harriet enjoyed a life of retirement and happy meals of hibiscus blossoms, for which she had a penchant. In the mid-1990s, a letter to the editor of an Australian paper included the memories an older gentleman had of seeing three Galapagos tortoises in the Botanical Garden in 1929. Irwin and his friends became curious as to whether Harriet might have been one of those three, and began an intensive study into her origins.

Using genetic research and the correspondence pieced together between Darwin and the former first mate, the Australia Zoo staff became convinced that Harriet the turtle was in her 160s, and was in all probability taken captive by Darwin himself on his expedition. Thrilled with their discovery of the past of this ancient pet, Australia Zoo threw a 175th birthday party for Harriet the turtle in 2005, complete with a hibiscus-flower cake. Following a short illness in 2006, Harriet died peacefully.

Harriet’s longevity is characteristic of her species, and an important factor in conservation efforts. Pointing out that the unassuming Harriet may very well have spent considerable time with Charles Darwin shows the incredible history of long-living animals. Galapagos tortoises of many subspecies are considered endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) and are in need of human intervention in order to protect them from future harm. To help tortoises like Harriet continue to live their long lives peacefully, contact a reputable conservation agency to see what you can do.

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