Friday, October 29, 2010

Harriet

Before she passed away 2006, Harriet was considered one of the oldest animals alive on the planet. Her age was placed at 176 years. While this seems incredibly old for us, it's quite normal for Galapagos Tortoises to exceed over a hundred years. Harriet is the third oldest tortoise recorded, after a fellow Galapagos who lived to 188, and an Aldabra Tortoise named Adwaita, who was reported to be a whopping 255 at his death in 2005.

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Harriet is considered special not only due to her old age. She is also rumored to be one of three Tortoises collected by Charles Darwin on his Beagle voyage in 1835. Recent research has cast some doubt on that story, as scientists claim she was a member of a subspecies (Geochelone nigra porteri) that lives on an island the Beagle never went to. We know that Darwin took three tortoises with him, which he described as being as large as dinner plates. Harriet was born around 1830, and would've been about that size in 1835. We know that Darwin's three tortoises ended up with John Clements Wickam, who was bound for Brisbane Australia. We also know that Harriet was present at the Brisbane Botanical Gardens by 1870, and lived there until it's closing in 1952. Another one of Darwin's Tortoises, Tom, died in the Gardens in 1929.

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Harriet's true story is still a mystery, but Darwin's tortoise or not, she lived a pretty extraordinary life that spanned an amazing period in human history. Andrew Jackson was president when she was born. Photography has just been invented. Telephones and Telegraphs were non-existent. She lived though wars, political upheavals, and scientific innovations... all while munching happily away in her garden.

Harriet was originally named "Harry" and was thought to be a male. It wasn't until the 1960s that she was discovered to be female (which explained why any breeding attempts failed.) Harriet was brought to Steve Irwin's Australia Zoo in Queensland in 1987 and became a fast favorite of all the staff and guests. She was reported a very good natured tortoise, " a grand old lady" to quote Irwin. He considered her a part of the family. Harriet died of a heart attack following an illness on June 23rd, 2006.

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