Harriet of the HMS Beagle: Long Lives the Tortoise!

Credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm / CC-By-SA-2.5
Harriet of the HMS Beagle: Long Lives the Tortoise!

From October of 1831 to October of 1836, a Royal Navy ship named the HMS Beagle was engaged in a historic voyage of exploration and discovery. On this celebrated voyage, the famous naturalist Charles Darwin collected several specimens of Galapagos tortoises, and among these were three specific tortoises destined to be remembered. Tom, Dick, and Harry were among many young Galapagos tortoises collected by Darwin in 1835 during his exploration of the Galapagos Islands.

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Harry was originally from the Galapagos Island of Santa Cruz. Although Darwin never specifically visited that island, he did confiscate turtles from others who had been to Santa Cruz, which is likely how he ended up with Harry. Harry was brought to Australia from England in 1841 by John Clements Wickham, the first officer aboard the HMS Beagle during its second and most famous voyage. Harry was later discovered to be a female and was renamed Harriet. Estimated to have been born in 1830, Harriet remained in Australia where she died on 23 June 2006 in her enclosure at Australia Zoo at the approximate age of 175 years. Tom, a tortoise from the Galapagos Island of San Cristobal, died in 1929 at Brisbane Botanical Gardens and is preserved in the Queensland Museum.

Both the tortoise and the turtle are from the chelonia order of reptiles and are often referred to interchangeably, even among biologists. The following are three interesting characteristics of the tortoise and the turtle which may be new to you:

  1. A turtle’s organs age VERY slowly. Researchers have discovered that the organs of a 100-year-old tortoise are almost indistinguishable from those of a juvenile.
  2. You can often identify a box turtle’s gender by the shape of its shell. The bottom of a male box turtle’s shell is often concave to allow for easier mounting. While some males may not have this concave shell, the bottom of a female box turtle’s shell is always flat.
  3. Turtles cross the highway to find a suitable place to lay their eggs. Those who have lived in the Missouri Ozarks are undoubtedly used to seeing the many turtles brazenly crossing the highway during springtime. It seems the reason turtles take this trek in the Spring is to find a suitable place to mate and lay their eggs. If you think those turtles are a long way from home, you probably were not aware that in 1968, a pair of Russian cosmonaut tortoises successfully traveled around the moon on the space probe Zond 5.

The status held by the tortoise and turtle in popular culture depends upon the country. In many countries and during ancient and modern times, turtles have held a position of admiration and respect. This status is reflected in literature and film. In Aesop’s Fables of Ancient Greece, the tortoise is the hero of, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” where he outwits the faster, overconfident hare in a footrace. The United States has been home to the four evil-fighting Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles since they first appeared in a comic book in 1984. The image of a turtle as a martial artist continued with the wise and revered Master Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim) in Kung Fu Panda (2008).

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Despite the positive status given to the tortoise and turtle in literature and film as mentioned above, being called a “turtle’s egg” is one of the worst insults you can receive in China.

Bottom Line

While there are some differences, tortoises and turtles are often referred to interchangeably. Tortoises and turtles both belong to the chelonia order, and all are amazing creatures. Harriet the Galapagos Tortoise, who died in 2006 at the approximate age of 175, is believed to have been taken from the Galapagos Islands by none other than Charles Darwin in 1835.

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Randal A. Burd Jr. is a freelance writer, educator, and poet from Missouri. He is also a Kentucky Colonel and a genealogy enthusiast.

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