On Dec. 2, 2023, the comedy show "Saturday Night Live" raised an important question: What did naturalist Charles Darwin and “Crocodile Hunter”/conservationist Steve Irwin have in common? The answer, apparently, is that they both owned the same tortoise, even though Darwin lived in the 19th century and Irwin was born in 1962 and died in 2006.
According to the Australia Zoo website, Harriet was likely born around 1830 and was “collected from the Galapagos Islands in 1835, by [Darwin], when she was just the size of a dinner plate.” She was thought to be the world’s oldest living tortoise at the time, though she was not the oldest known tortoise to exist.
Even though Harriet has been widely reported by media outlets, including NBC News, as having been owned by both Irwin and Darwin, micro-palaeontologist Paul Chambers looked into this claim in his book “A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise” finding it “a little too good to be true.”
According to “A Sheltered Life,” Chambers even visited Irwin’s zoo to meet Harriet and found no one there willing to answer his questions about her origins. Irwin was not present at the zoo but his staff focused on talking about his forthcoming film and his crocodile wrestling, evading all his questions about Harriet.
Darwin had been fascinated by the giant tortoises in the Galapagos, about which he wrote in his diaries. According to Chambers' account in a 2004 article in New Scientist, Darwin even ate a few of the tortoises and had a diluted taste of their urine extracted from their bladders in accordance with local custom.
Darwin traveled around the Galapagos on his ship, the Beagle, bringing back to England several tortoises, some of which were juvenile. Enroute, the ship had many more tortoises that were consumed by the travelers. Chambers learned that in 1837 Darwin showed several young tortoises to the British Museum’s resident reptile expert. The fate of those tortoises remained unclear, Chambers pointed out, with Adrian Desmond and James Moore, who wrote a definitive biography of Darwin in the 1990s, admitting that their attempts to track these tortoises down were unsuccessful.
After some further inquiry, Chambers concluded it was likely that Harriet would have been one of two tortoises collected by Darwin and his assistant Syms Covington from San Salvador and Santa Maria islands respectively. The only reference he found in Darwin’s writings to the two tortoises was one note found in a manuscript in the Cambridge University Library of an inventory of specimens:
Covington’s little tortoise (Charles Island [Santa Maria])
Mine from James [San Salvador]
Chambers called this the “only definite proof that Darwin and his servant actually collected their own juvenile tortoise specimens from the Galapagos.” After his return to England, Darwin made no reference to the tortoises. While trying to trace the reptiles after 1837, Chambers wrote:
Despite the hundreds of pages of notes and long lists of specimens that he made during the Beagle voyage, a comprehensive search shows that Darwin does not once mention that he and his servant took and looked after two live tortoises from the Galapagos. In fact the only reference to them at all is the previously mentioned note, after his arrival in England.
Furthermore, Chambers looked into Darwin’s life after his return, analyzing whether he had the capacity to even care for a tortoise:
If one examines his life after his Beagle adventure, there seems to be little room in it for a tortoise. During the first six months he spent his time moving from place to place, alternately staying in Cambridge, London and Shrewsbury. When, in March 1837, he did settle in London it was as a guest of his brother Erasmus in Great Marlborough Street. [...]
Chambers theorized that Covington was largely in charge of Darwin’s specimens, possibly including the tortoises, which would explain how Darwin could take them to be examined by the British Museum in 1837. However, Covington left Darwin’s employment in 1839 and moved to Sydney, Australia, working his passage on a long sea voyage. Chambers argued it was unlikely he took two 10-year-old tortoises who may have weighed at least 50 kilograms each on such a voyage.
Darwin, he argued, could not have kept the tortoises in his London house with his wife and infants. By 1841, Chambers said, Darwin was in such poor health, with his wife forced to nurse him, that the caring of tortoises would have been too much trouble. They moved to a village with no evidence that tortoises moved with them. Furthermore, Chambers found no evidence of living or dead Galapagos tortoises received by the British Museum, Zoological Society, Kew Gardens, or even the university museums at Oxford or Cambridge between the years 1837 and 1842.
It was possible that John Wickham, the first lieutenant on the Beagle took the tortoises to Australia. However, Chambers noted that Wickham’s trip to Australia aboard the Beagle in 1837 had no record of tortoises on board. Furthermore, he found no evidence of Wickham’s and Darwin’s communication after the voyage ended in 1836.
“The idea that Wickham assumed ownership of Darwin’s two tortoises without there being any correspondence at all, either to arrange the handover or to thank him, is almost impossible,” Chambers wrote. “Like many Victorian gentlemen, Darwin arranged his life by letter and kept an archive of all correspondence sent to him. To have no record at all of a meeting with Wickham, let alone his taking possession of two tortoises, is unlikely in the extreme.”
Finally, Chambers argued that the likelihood of the tortoises surviving England’s weather was weak:
Add to this the fact that giant tortoises do not cope well with the English climate and also that most of the giant tortoises imported for zoos died within two years of their arrival (the longest a specimen has been known to survive is fifteen years and that was in the early twentieth century) and the case for Harriet having been one of the Beagle tortoises is weakened still further.
In his report for the New Scientist, Chambers found 1874 correspondence between Darwin and Albert Günther, the keeper of the British Museum’s zoological section, who was curious about the whereabouts of the Beagle tortoises. Darwin responded in a manner that was at odds with his own previous notes, “I find that I did not bring home any tortoises from the Galapagos, as several were brought home by the surgeon and FitzRoy. I have vague remembrance that specimens were given to the Military Institution in Whitehall…”
So where did Harriet actually come from? According to the Australia Zoo, Harriet was from the Galapagos Islands, specifically Santa Cruz. BBC reported that DNA testing suggested Harriet was born around 1830, a few years before Darwin visited the Galapagos archipelago in 1835. The BBC also argued that Harriet was from a sub-species of tortoise only found on an island that Darwin never visited. This testing was carried out by Scott Davis of Texas A&M University in 1998. While the results were not published, Chambers found a summary of the test in Davis’ PhD student’s thesis, which stated Harriet belonged to Geochelone nigra porteri, the subspecies exclusively from Santa Cruz Island.
Scott Thomson, a herpetologist in Canberra drew the connection between Harriet and Wickham, and argued that Darwin had given her to the Beagle leiutenant who then brought her to Australia. He argued that residents of Santa Maria Island were known to travel to other islands to collect tortoises for food.
Frank Sulloway, a science historian at the University of California, Berkeley, and an expert on the Galapagos tortoise disagreed with Thomson's analysis, telling Chambers that it was unlikely the inhabitants of Santa Maria island would have visited Santa Cruz due to its inhospitable terrain and lack of fresh water.
Chambers argued that Harriet could have been owned by Wickham at one point (though he may not have obtained her from Darwin) who donated her to Brisbane Botanical Gardens long before she called the Australia Zoo her home. It was also possible she was taken from the island by a whaling ship — Galapagos turtles made their way to Australia through this route often at the time. Chambers concluded in the New Scientist:
It is highly unlikely that Darwin and Harriet ever had the pleasure of meeting, although it is conceivable that she was alive at the time of his visit to the Galapagos. Perhaps Harriet watched from Santa Cruz Island as the Beagle’s sails carried it away from the archipelago, carrying the biological revolutionary and his precious collection of specimens homeward and into the annals of history.
Ultimately, the answer is still unknown. Darwin and Harriet may have been on the Galapagos islands at the same time – Harriet did live long enough for a possible encounter with the famed naturalist. But extensive research has cast doubt on the claim that she was actually owned by Darwin.