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Jonathan: The World’s Oldest Living Tortoise – Lesson

tortoise GettyImages-89171765

(Photo by DEA / F. GALARDI/De Agostini via Getty Images)

At 190 years old, this amazing reptile is breaking records.

Tortoises are such amazing creatures! Not only can they live far longer than any other land animal, they also inspired the ancient Roman military, have two skeletons, and can smell with their throats. Jonathan, a Seychelles Giant Tortoise, has earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the oldest living earth-dwelling reptile. He is estimated to be at least 190 years old.


Tortoises, along with turtles and terrapins, belong to the category chelonians. The animal’s carapace, or shell, is covered in scales called scutes. These are made up of keratin (the same thing fingernails are made of) and protect the shell from injury or disease. The shade of their outermost coating signifies the type of climate they live in. A lighter color represents a warmer climate, while a darker hue indicates colder and darker conditions.

Though the super-sized creatures are not considered overly intelligent, a 2006 experiment helped scientists realize they may be smarter than originally thought. Scientist Anna Wilkinson put both a tortoise and a rat into a maze with food in certain areas. Unexpectedly, the chelonian was better at making its way through, discovering the hidden treats, and making sure not to revisit the places he had already been.

How Scientists Determine Jonathan’s Age

One way to find the age of a tortoise is by counting the rings around the scutes. Jonathan’s age, however, was revealed by his history. In 1882, a healthy and fully grown Jonathan arrived in St. Helena, an island in the Atlantic. Scientists know that the animal does not reach full maturity until the age of 50. Based on that information, Jonathan’s birthdate was estimated to be sometime in 1832. Though he may be older, his caretakers will celebrate his 190th birthday this year.

Jonathan tortoise

Jonathan (left) with another giant tortoise (1886)

A picture of a full-grown Jonathan, taken between 1882 and 1886, grazing in front of his long-time home in St. Helena, confirmed his estimated age.

A World Record Holder

Jonathan’s long life has earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. The official record he holds is World’s Oldest Chelonian. A healthy diet of cabbage, carrots, cucumbers, apples, lettuce hearts and other fruits and veggies has done his body good. Jonathan remains strong, energetic, and an overall happy reptile.

A very content Jonathan spends his days sunbathing. However, if it is too hot, he likes to dig his way to a shady place under leaves or grass clippings. He loves spending time with his three leatherback roommates, Fred, Emma, and David.

Interesting Facts About Tortoises

  • Tortoises have two skeletons: an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton.
  • A group of tortoises is called a creep, though they are not often found in groups.
  • The ancient Roman military was inspired by the shape and protection of the tortoise’s shell and used the design as a defensive military formation.
  • Tortoises can feel when touched or rubbed through nerve endings in their shells.
  • Tortoises can smell through their throats with their Jacobson’s organ.
  • Adwaita, a male tortoise from Kolkata, India, was believed to be about 250 years old, though it cannot be confirmed.