Jonathan the tortoise
Sarah Biren
Sarah Biren
February 4, 2022 ·  4 min read

Jonathan the 190-Year-Old Tortoise Was Photographed in 1886 and Today

Happy birthday to Jonathan the giant tortoise, who turned 190 years old this year. He is the oldest living animal, according to Guinness World Records. Additionally, Jonathan is the oldest chelonian — a category of animals that include tortoises, turtles, and terrapins — ever recorded. He resides on the remote tropical island of St. Helena, known for its “pristine terrestrial and marine environment.[1] Jonathan was born in the early 1800s and has lived on the island since 1882 in the Plantation House paddock with some other (much younger) tortoises. 

The Oldest Tortoise in History

In an update from the St. Helena Government, Jonathan has “come through the winter well. He grazes well now but is unaware of food if we simply place it on the ground. The Veterinary Section is still feeding him by hand once a week to boost his calories, vitamins, minerals, and trace elements, as he is blind and has no sense of smell. His hearing though is excellent and he loves the company of humans, and responds well to his vet Joe Hollins’ voice as he associates him with a feast.[2]

Jonathan the tortoise in December 2021
Jonathan the tortoise in December 2021. Image via Guinness World Records

Jonathan has replaced the previous oldest chelonian title held by Tu’i Malila. That tortoise lived about 188 years. He was cared for by the royal family of Tonga from 1777 to 1965 after being presented by British explorer Captain James Cook. Meanwhile, Jonathan is believed to have been born in 1832. This estimation is based on when he reached full maturity at least 50 years old by the time he came to St. Helena according to the British Museum in London. Truth be told, he could be even older. In an interview with CNN, Matt Joshua, head of tourism on St. Helena said, “Jonathan could actually be 200 because the information regarding his arrival on the island is not exact and because there’s no real record of his birth.” [3]

Plus, there’s a photograph of Jonathan taken between 1882 and 1886. There, the tortoise is fully grown and grazing on grass in his home at the Plantation House. Despite all the passing years and lifetimes, Jonathan still resides on those same lands with three other massive tortoises named Emma, David, and Fred.

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Enjoying His Golden Years

Despite being older than the Eiffel tower, the reign of Queen Victoria, and the invention of the telephone, Jonathan seems unaffected. His main hobbies these days include eating, sleeping, and mating. His vet, and seemingly favorite person, Hollins states Jonathan “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.” And when it’s cold, Jonathan choses to “dig himself into leaf mold or grass clippings and remain there all day.”

Jonathan (left) in the 1880s on the grounds of Plantation House, St Helena
Jonathan (left) in the 1880s. Image via Guinness World Records

Despite his age, failing sense of smell and sight, Jonathan has lots of energy. As Hollins said,

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!

His favorite foods include carrots, apples, cucumbers, cabbages, and other fruits. “He loves banana, but it tends to gum up his mouth. Lettuce hearts, though not very nutritious, are a favorite.”

Read: Rare Footage of Giant Phantom Jellyfish from 3,200 Feet Under the Sea

A Local Icon 

Unfortunately, Jonathan can’t give us the secret to his long life. In fact, scientists don’t fully understand why tortoises have such longevity. However, giant tortoises quickly dispose of damaged cells in a process called apoptosis. This could help protect them from the deterioration of age, but more research is needed to find the true answer.

Plus, while Jonathan may be the oldest animal on land, there are many underwater creatures with longer lifespans. For instance, Greenland sharks can live for about 272 years, and Hydra, a kind of small invertebrates, are constantly regenerating and seem not to age at all. In the wild, disease, predators, and pollution is what kill off these creatures. [4]

But on land, Jonathan is a celebrity and St. Helena is planning a large party for his birthday. This will include a collage of the many people who had visited the tortoise. “There are generations and generations of St. Helenians, aka Saints, who have pictures of granny with him as a child,” said Joshua. “He’s really well-loved and people look out for him.

He is a local icon,” said Hollins, “symbolic of persistence in the face of change.”

Keep Reading: World’s Largest Sea Turtle Emerged From The Sea And It Was Amazing


  1. “Welcome to St Helena Government.” Saint Helena Government
  2. “190-year-old Jonathan becomes world’s oldest tortoise ever.Guinness World Records. Sanj Atwal. January 12, 2022
  3. “Meet 190-year-old Jonathan, the world’s oldest-ever tortoise.CNN. Lianne Kolirin. January 26, 2022
  4. “190-year-old Jonathan is the oldest tortoise ever.” Live Science. Patrick Pester. January 30, 2022