29 December 2008

How Old May You Be?

Early this month the Telegraph and other British newspapers declared that a tortoise named Jonathan was the world's oldest living animal.

Jonathan had arrived on the island of St. Helena in 1882 as a mature tortoise (i.e., at least fifty years old), making him at least 176 today.

But now some high-school students in Banbury, Oxfordshire, have interviewed a visitor from St. Helena and raised doubts about that conclusion. As they reported to the BBC:

  • big tortoises look a lot alike.
  • islanders might well have given the name Jonathan to more than one tortoise.
It's not that the current Jonathan can't be 176 years old, or even older. It's just that the evidence about his longevity on St. Helena isn't so clear as when the photograph above (from the Boer War) was first noted in the media.

According to Tortoise, by Peter Young, the Jonathan alive today inspired the Rev. L. P. Walcott to write these lines in 1924:
Said I to the Tortoise, ‘How old may you be?’
‘Two hundred or so,’ said the Tortoise to me.
‘That’s a very long time,’ to the Tortoise I said.
‘Not so long,’ he replied, ‘for most was in bed.’

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