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.
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.