Harriet, who probably knew Darwin, dies at 175

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The Independent Online

Born when Queen Victoria was still a teenager and said to have been studied by Charles Darwin, the story of Harriet the giant Galapagos tortoise ended yesterday. She died aged at least 175.

Almost certainly the oldest captive land animal, her vast age attracted great veneration among the visitors at a Brisbane zoo, where she spent the last 17 years of her life as the main, if somewhat slow-moving, attraction.

Her carers credited her longevity to a "stress-free life" and Harriet celebrated her 175th birthday in October. She had recently fallen ill and died in her sleep.

Dr John Hangar, a senior vet at Australia Zoo, said: "She had a fairly acute heart attack and thankfully passed away quietly."

Harriet was mistaken for a male for the first 124 years of her life and weighed 23 stone (150kg) - she was the size of a small dinner table and as the member of an endangered species she was studied by biologists from around the world.

But her capture caused controversy as some, including those at Australia Zoo, believed she was caught by Charles Darwin, the British naturalist who wrote On the Origin of Species. Darwin took several giant Galapagos tortoises back to London after his epic voyage on board HMS Beagle, which meant Harriet could have played a key role in the theory of evolution.

Some claim that she was one of four giant tortoises known to have been collected by Darwin's expedition to the Galapagos in 1835. The four were loaded on to the Beagle, reaching Plymouth in October 1836, where they fell ill. Two were dead by the following spring. According to biographies offered by Harriet's successive Australian keepers, she was one of the other two, shipped down under in 1841 by John Wickham, a shipmate of Darwin from the Beagle.

This story is supported by the presence of another giant tortoise in the Queensland Museum in Brisbane. With the words "Tom - giant land tortoise died 1929 Brisbane Botanic Gardens" carved on its shell, Tom is thought to be one of three tortoises brought to the country for exhibition in 1841. Harriet may be the third.

Analysis of her DNA by US researchers shows she was almost certainly from Santa Cruz island in the Galapagos. The Beagle's tortoises were taken from Espanola, Santa Maria and San Salvador. But what is not in doubt is Harriet's advanced age - DNA tests made Harriet at least 175.