Jonathan The Tortoise, The Oldest Animal In The World, Just Turned 191

Published December 8, 2023

Jonathan the tortoise is estimated to have been born in 1832, which means he's lived through 40 U.S. presidents and eight British monarchs.

Jonathan The Tortoise

mark phillips / Alamy Stock PhotoJonathan the tortoise celebrated his 191st birthday on Dec. 4, 2023.

In 1832, Andrew Jackson was the president of the United States, Charles Darwin explored the world aboard the HMS Beagle, and a giant tortoise named Jonathan was born in the Seychelles. Jackson and Darwin are, of course, long gone — but Jonathan the tortoise just celebrated his 191st birthday. Today, he’s considered the oldest land animal in the world.

As a 191-year-old, Jonathan has had an eventful life. In celebration of his latest trip around the Sun, here’s everything we know about Jonathan the tortoise, from his murky early years and romantic dalliances to his life today.

A Giant Tortoise’s Murky Beginnings

Not much is known about Jonathan the tortoise’s early life. He was brought to St. Helena from the Seychelles in 1882 as a gift for the island’s future governor, William Grey-Wilson, but by that point, Jonathan was around 50 years old and already fully grown.

“It was quite traditional for [tortoises] to be used as diplomatic gifts around the world, if they weren’t eaten first,” Joe Hollins, the veterinarian who takes care of Jonathan, explained to the Washington Post in 2022.

Jonathan was initially identified as an Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) from the Aldabra Atoll, one of the islands that make up the Seychelles archipelago. But scientists have since determined that Jonathan is more likely a rare Seychelles giant tortoise, creatures with a life expectancy of about 150 years.

Jonathan, now rounding 191, is of course remarkably older. In fact, he may be even older than 191.

Jonathan The Tortoise In The 1800s

Joe HollinsJonathan the tortoise, left, with another tortoise who has since died. This photo was taken in the late 1800s, shortly after Jonathan arrived in St. Helena.

Because Jonathan was estimated to be around the age of 50 when he arrived on St. Helena in 1882, he was subsequently “given” an official birthday of Dec. 4, 1832. But it’s not entirely clear when he hatched.

Though Jonathan naturally can’t do much aside from wander the lawns of the island’s governor’s mansion, known as the “Plantation House,” he quickly became a beloved part of St. Helena society. As Smithsonian Magazine reports, Jonathan even appears on the island’s five pence coin.

It’s no wonder why. As the decades ticked by, Jonathan lived through 40 U.S. presidents, 31 governors of St. Helena, and eight British monarchs. As politicians came and went, Jonathan was always a consistent presence on the island.

And just like any celebrity, his love life has been carefully documented.

Jonathan The Tortoise Falls In Love

Perhaps the most exciting moment of Jonathan the tortoise’s life came in 1991 when the French consul gifted a tortoise named Frederika to the governor of St. Helena. Jonathan was quickly infatuated with the island’s newest resident, and the two tortoises began an “intimate” relationship.

But as Smithsonian Magazine reports, a vet examining a lesion on Frederika’s shell in 2017 made a surprising discovery: Frederika was probably a male.

This solved a mystery: why Jonathan and Frederika had never had offspring.

Jonathan And The Other Tortoises

Joe HollinsJonathan, back right, David, back left, Emma, front right, and Fred, front left. 2016.

“Animals,” Hollins noted, “are often not particularly gender-sensitive.”

Indeed, Jonathan the tortoise seems to have a healthy libido even at his advanced age. He lives with three other tortoises, Emma, David, and Frederik (since renamed), and he continues to mate with both Emma and Frederik.

So, aside from conducting his love affairs and awing his adoring public, what else has Jonathan the tortoise been up to lately?

Jonathan The Tortoise Today

Jonathan spends his days much as he always has: sunbathing on the lawns of the Plantation House, mating with Emma and Frederik, and enjoying meals of lettuce, bananas, and cucumbers (though he doesn’t care for kale).

Joe Hollins And Jonathan

Joe HollinsJonathan and his veterinarian, Joe Hollins, who has cared for the giant tortoise for more than a decade.

But the giant tortoise has also started to show some signs of his advanced age. He is blind from cataracts and has lost his sense of smell. That said, Hollins notes that Jonathan has shown “no sign of slowing down.”

Jonathan’s appetite — both for food and for mating with his fellow tortoises — remains “keen,” according to Hollins.

“He knows my voice and comes to me like a dog, but I have to accept it is mainly Pavlovian because he associates me with food,” Hollins told the Washington Post.

Indeed, Jonathan the tortoise seems happily ignorant that he holds two world records. Guinness World Records has deemed him the oldest chelonian — creatures with a hard outer shell — and the oldest known living land animal, an honor Jonathan snatched from Tu’i Malila, a 188-year-old tortoise, in 2021.

Not that that seems to mean much for Jonathan. In his 191 years, he’s lived through a number of historical milestones. Jonathan’s breadth of experience stretches from the first photograph of a person (taken in 1838) to the moment that man first landed on the Moon (1969). He’s lived through wars, pandemics, natural disasters, and much more.

But Jonathan the tortoise seems mostly concerned with eating his meals, seeing his tortoise friends, and catching enough rays to keep his almost 200-year-old body warm. As Hollins remarked:

“While wars, famines, plagues, kings and queens and even nations have come and gone, he has pottered on, totally oblivious to the passage of time.”

After reading about the record-breaking life of Jonathan the tortoise, discover the story of Ming the Clam, who was the world’s oldest known documented animal — until scientists accidentally killed him. Or, learn about some of the world’s most incredible prehistoric animals.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Cara Johnson
A writer and editor based in Charleston, South Carolina and an assistant editor at All That's Interesting, Cara Johnson holds a B.A. in English and Creative Writing from Washington & Lee University and an M.A. in English from College of Charleston and has written for various publications in her six-year career.
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Fraga, Kaleena. "Jonathan The Tortoise, The Oldest Animal In The World, Just Turned 191.", December 8, 2023, Accessed June 20, 2024.