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See Inside September 2006

Requiem for a Heavyweight

A slow and steady--and exceptionally lengthy--life
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
Four score and seven years and four score and nine more years ago, a tortoise hatched in the Gal¿pagos. She spent the past half a century known as Harriet. For more than a century before that, she was called Harry. Before that she almost was called dinner, but fate had other plans. Her heart, which began beating when Abraham Lincoln was barely out of his teens, finally stopped on June 23.

Her fame came from her longevity and from her celebrity friends. She spent her last years at the Australia Zoo in Queensland, run by Terri and Steve "the Crocodile Hunter" Irwin. And she was most likely rescued from the soup tureen that she strongly resembled by Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin, born the same day as Lincoln.

"I find her walk through time to be extraordinary," says Scott Thomson, a paleontologist and taxonomist at the University of Canberra in Australia, whose analysis of Harriet's DNA helped to show that her life began in 1830, give or take a couple years. Most of Harriet's history was hidden when Thomson start-ed snooping around in the early 1990s as part of an effort aimed at determining the subspecies of all Gal¿pagos tortoises in Australia. When that project started, Thomson knew that Harriet had come to the Australia Zoo (then known as the Queens-land Reptile Park) in 1987. As Thomson, Irwin and Irwin wrote in a 1998 article in the journal Reptilia, in 1952 Harriet began living at a place called Fleay's Fauna Sanctuary. There she was finally recognized to have been a female all along. The mix-up is understandable, because determining the sex of a giant tortoise is problematic. For one thing, turning over a 330-pound, shelled reptile is no small feat. (Small feet are no giveaway either.) Internal genitalia make the exercise largely pointless anyway.

Pre-Fleay, she was at the Brisbane Botanical Gardens, living as Harry, named after the curator, one Harry Oakmann. (Some of the gardens' trees may also have been named for him.) And records showed that Harry/Harriet was there at least as far back as 1870. A break in the case came in 1994, when an Australian newspaper ran a story about another giant tortoise, called Lonesome George because of his status as the last member of his subspecies. The article prompted a newspaper letter from a retired historian who remembered seeing tortoises, including Harry/Harriet, in Brisbane back in the 1920s--and being told that they had been brought by a Captain Wickham from England.

Wickham was first lieutenant to Captain FitzRoy on the Beagle, the ship that carried the young naturalist Charles Darwin from 1831 to 1836. And Darwin was the most likely person to have collected Harriet.

Some reports pour cold water on the Darwin connection, because Thomson's DNA analysis showed that Harriet was a member of a subspecies native to Santa Cruz island, which Darwin never visited. But Darwin did collect tortoises on Santa Maria island--even though the Marian subspecies had been driven to extinction by hungry inmates of the local prison, unfamiliar with the concept of sustainable development. The prison thus restocked its cupboards with tortoises captured on other Gal¿pagos islands. Strong circumstantial evidence therefore puts the juvenile Harriet on Santa Cruz, where she gets incarcerated by cons, carried to Santa Maria and plucked from the pot by Darwin.

After that near-broth experience, the next 170 years were a cakewalk. But all good things, even those long postponed, must finally end. "It's very sad that she died," Thomson says. "I knew Harriet for over 20 years, and she came to mean a lot to me. She loved people more than any other tortoise I have ever met." And the Times of London, not ordinarily given to eulogizing tortoises, paid this tribute: "Harriet created less trouble in the world than any other living creature, four-legged or biped." She certainly caused less trouble for some people than that biped Darwin.

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