Darwin’s pet tortoise

by Greg Mayer (addendum below)

Darwin lived in the country, and had many animals– for companionship, work, and research. For companions, his chief pets were d*gs (my favorite of Darwin’s d*gs was Bob), but he also had a tortoise that he brought home from James (Santiago) Island in the Galapagos. It has been claimed (most notably by the late Steve Irwin of Crocodile Hunter fame) that this tortoise later made its way to Australia, where it was named Harriet and lived to be about 175 years old. I always thought this story had dubious links in its chain of evidence, and Paul Chambers, in A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise, after an exhausting examination, considered the story untrue.

A Galapagos tortoise from James (Santiago) Island, once owned by Charles Darwin. BM(NH) 1874.6.1.6, formerly 37.8.13.1.

A Galapagos tortoise from James (Santiago) Island, once owned by Charles Darwin. BM(NH) 1874.6.1.6, formerly 37.8.13.1.

Unbeknownst to me, four years ago Aaron Bauer and Colin McCarthy revealed the true fate of Darwin’s tortoise: it’s in the Natural History Museum in London, which is pretty much where you would have expected it to wind up. Henry Nicholls in the Guardian, in a Darwin Day tortoise piece, reminds us all of this fact, telling some of the details of the specimen’s history and rediscovery.

McCarthy, at the time the herpetology collection manager, found it in a store room in March of 2009, while preparing a list of Darwin specimens in the collection. Its original registration number shows it was catalogued on August 13, 1837, so it lived only a relatively short while after getting to England.

I am not at all surprised that it turned up at the Natural History Museum, nor that it was lost track of. The big, older, museums have large collections, and earlier curation policies were not up to today’s standards. There’s an old story, perhaps apocryphal, that a British paleontologist once submitted a grant application to fund an expedition to the basement of the museum!

According to Nicholls, you get to see the tortoise as part of the “Spirit Collection Tour” at the museum. “Spirit” refers not to the departed specimens’ souls, but to their method of preservation: in spirits. (Such specimens are called  “alcoholics”, which causes some initial confusion when referring to them in front of a non-museum audience).

____________________________________________________________

Bauer, A.M. and C.J. McCarthy. 2010. Darwin’s pet Galápagos tortoise, Chelonoidis darwini, rediscovered. Chelonian Conservation and Biology 9:270-276. abstract

Chambers, P. 2004. A Sheltered Life: The Unexpected History of the Giant Tortoise. John Murray, London (American edition, 2006, by Oxford University Press, New York). OUP

Addendum: In response to a reader’s request, I append a photo of Bob (as well as much of the rest of the Darwin family) at Down House ca. early 1860s.

Darwin's dog Bob, lying on ground below window.

Darwin’s dog Bob, lying on ground below window.

24 Comments

  1. Posted February 12, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Jesus clearly must love tortoises better than humans, what with them living half again as long.

    But, seriously: can you imagine taking responsibility for a pet that may well outlive your grandchildren?

    b&

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 12, 2014 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

      Yes. My parents bought a tortoise before I was born. They lived in an apartment and my mom got him because she could have him in the apartment. Back then (the late 60s) they sold these animals without regard to their health or their environment. I’m sure many suffered and died not only on the voyage from their homes in the South American rain forest but also in the homes of whoever bought them. They aren’t a pet people should really have & I’m glad there are stricter laws in place now.

      However, I’m glad my parents had this tortoise! I used to play with him as a kid & I took him to my Kindergarten class at the request of my teacher. The tortoise went to each Kindergarten class for as long as I was in school so that kids could see what a tortoise was like. My parents had the tortoise well into his forties. He sadly drowned in their pond and we think he was getting a bit senile in his old age as he would always avoid water and if he ever encountered it, would float easily.

      I thought for sure, I would be inheriting the tortoise.

      • moarscienceplz
        Posted February 12, 2014 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

        ” I used to play with him as a kid …”

        World’s slowest game of fetch? ;-)

        • Brian Axsmith
          Posted February 13, 2014 at 9:21 am | Permalink

          You’ve never been pursued by a hungry tortoise! They are faster than many realize.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted February 13, 2014 at 11:23 am | Permalink

          I took him on my rocking horse once when I was 3 & dropped him. :(

    • Dominic
      Posted February 13, 2014 at 2:32 am | Permalink

      Don’t christians say, “as Jesus tortoise…”?!

  2. moarscienceplz
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    “The big, older, museums have large collections, and earlier curation policies were not up to today’s standards.”

    Where in heck did I leave that Ark of the Covenant?

  3. Merilee
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 6:02 pm | Permalink

    Photos of Bob ( B*b??)

  4. marksolock
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on Mark Solock Blog.

  5. Dennis Hansen
    Posted February 12, 2014 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    Ohh, Jerry, you are spoiling me – a post about a tortoise! (and a d*g, but who cares). There are many stories about ‘heirloom tortoises’ in families here in Europe. A colleague of mine has one that his family has had since shortly before WWII.

    • Dominic
      Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:13 am | Permalink

      Do you know the species? I am told some are hybrids of perhaps North African & Greek…

      • Dennis Hansen
        Posted February 13, 2014 at 6:40 am | Permalink

        No, not for sure – but probably a greek. They are quite variable.

  6. Diane G.
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 12:57 am | Permalink

    There’s an old story, perhaps apocryphal, that a British paleontologist once submitted a grant application to fund an expedition to the basement of the museum!

    Ha Ha Ha!

    Wonderful story, save for one thing–the untimely demise of the poor tortoises, of course.

    In honor of Darwin’s tortoise I shall give my two Russian Tortoises an extra romaine leaf tomorrow.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:47 am | Permalink

      My tortoise liked banana as a treat and he also aye chicory from the lawn.

  7. pktom64
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 5:21 am | Permalink

    Are we talking about those tortoise?

    QI: Why did it take 300 years to give the Giant Tortosie a scientific name?
    youtube.com/watch?v=4k-l1HLj9Nk

    (warning, hilarity may ensue)

  8. Jim Thomerson
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I spent a week in 1991 looking at dead fish in the BMNH. It was an interesting experience. That was when there was the turmoil about emphasizing exhibit and education rather than research. I didn’t find any new species.

  9. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted February 13, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    There’s an old story, perhaps apocryphal, that a British paleontologist once submitted a grant application to fund an expedition to the basement of the museum!

    The version that I heard is that the proposed expedition was to go in search of a lost party of curators who set out in 1939 and the records got lost during the War. They’re probably still in there somewhere.
    Barbarian museum curators, with bones through their noses and a wild variety of animal horns from which to fashion their implements. Does anyone have Indiana Jones’ phone number?

    • Posted February 13, 2014 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

      Last I heard, Indy had already been summoned to the case. He was going to attempt to use the Tibetan time-warp portal stolen by the Soviets in ’53 to prevent the original expedition from getting lost in the first place, but his Hypertrans Jump got hijacked by a grue and Indy was about to be eaten. Twisty maze, passages all alike — you know the drill. No word yet on his fate, but the third act is due to open any minute….

      Cheers,

      b&

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted February 13, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

        Twisty maze of similar passages, all different.
        A dwarf comes round the corner and throws an axe at you. It misses.
        XYZZY!
        Kids today won’t know what we’re talking about. I hope.

        • Posted February 14, 2014 at 10:02 am | Permalink

          If you really want to feel old…kids today will never own a cellphone with less computing power than the Cray and IBM supercomputers that ASU had when I was at school there — the nearly-unimaginably powerful beasts that mere students would never be let near.

          Cellphones!

          Damn…I gotta grow me a lawn just so I can tell at the kids to get off of it….

          b&

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:05 pm | Permalink

            I’ve gotta get me a lawn so that I can get a lawnmowing robot … and mount machine guns on it to deal with the kids.

            • Posted February 14, 2014 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

              Don’t forget the flamethrowers! I love the smell of burnt sacrifice in the morning….

              b&

  10. John Scanlon, FCD
    Posted February 19, 2014 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    The curator J.E. Gray was the creator of beautifully euphonious names for many vertebrate genera (e.g. Tiliqua, Morelia, Delma, Demansia, Lialis, Morethia, and many more just among Australian reptiles), but didn’t like Darwin or evolution one little bit.
    It was Gray who left Darwin’s name off the catalogue record when re-registering the tortoise and other donated specimens. Possibly out of spite. Just sayin’


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