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Jonathan, the world's oldest tortoise, marks his 190th with fanfare and salad cake

Jonathan chills on the lawn of Plantation House, the residence of the governor of St. Helena, in October 2017. The world's oldest tortoise is celebrating what is believed to be his 190th birthday this year.
Gianluigi Guercia
AFP via Getty Images
Jonathan chills on the lawn of Plantation House, the residence of the governor of St. Helena, in October 2017. The world's oldest tortoise is celebrating what is believed to be his 190th birthday this year.

Updated December 7, 2022 at 11:24 AM ET

He's lived through two world wars, eight British monarchs and 40 U.S. presidents. His lifetime has seen the first phone call (1876), the first skyscraper (1885), the first power-driven flight (1903), the first people to walk on the moon (1969).

He was alive when the first photograph of a person was taken (1838); now he poses for selfies with adoring tourists. He was born before the creation of the postage stamp (1840), and now appears on them.

He is Jonathan, the world's oldest tortoise. And he's celebrating his 190th birthday.

Jonathan marked the occasion with a three-day birthday party over the weekend at his home on the South Atlantic island and British overseas territory St. Helena, where he's spent the majority of his long life (minus the first 50 years or so).

Jonathan is believed to have been born in 1832, but could potentially be even older. His estimated age is based on the fact that he was fully mature when he was brought to St. Helena from the Seychelles in 1882 as a gift to its then-governor.

And an old photograph of a fully grown Jonathan grazing on grass at the governors' residence — called Plantation House — sometime between 1882 and 1886 further supports that theory, according to Guinness World Records. He's lived there ever since, and currently enjoys the company of three giant tortoises named David, Emma and Fred.

Guinness World Records declared Jonathan the world's oldest chelonian — a category encompassing tortoises, turtles and terrapins — in January, three years after naming him the oldest-known land animal alive.

Jonathan is blind and has no sense of smell, but his hearing is great and he loves the company of humans, St. Helena's government told the recordkeeper at the start of 2022.

Jonathan's favorite foods include cabbage, cucumbers, carrots, apples, bananas and lettuce hearts. His vet, Joe Hollins, described his primary interests as sleeping (either in the sun or beneath grass clippings, depending on the temperature), eating and mating.

"In spite of his age, Jonathan still has good libido and is seen frequently to mate with Emma and sometimes Fred — animals are often not particularly gender-sensitive!" Hollins said.

Jonathan has actually been hailed as a gay icon for some time. In 2017, caretakers discovered during a medical procedure that Frederica, his mate of nearly three decades, was not actually a female as had been thought since the two were first introduced in 1991 — which explains the name Fred, and their lack of offspring.

It's just one interesting facet of Jonathan's fascinating life (another one is that he had his first bath several years ago, at the ripe age of 184), which has far exceeded the typical expectancy of what Hollins says is 150 years.

"Although aware of the responsibility and that, of course, he will die one day, I believe we have greatly enhanced his life expectancy," he told Guiness in 2019. "Like any celebrity we have made advance plans for his demise, but hope not to put them into action yet."

Jonathan's birthday party caps off a celebratory year

While Jonathan's exact date of birth is unknown, Governor Nigel Phillips granted him an official birthday of Dec. 4, 1832, earlier this year and timed the big bash so it would coincide with the popular annual Christmas market at Plantation House.

People could visit a special Jonathan stall at the market to see an animated video of his life, view the winners of an art competition in his honor and buy Jonathan-themed stamps and souvenirs, among other perks.

And the birthday boy was treated to a special salad cake featuring some of his favorite foods, like tomatoes and bananas.

This weekend's festivities weren't the only chance for fans to wish Jonathan well. St. Helena has actually been celebrating (some might say shell-ebrating) his birthday all year.

It's held local art and souvenir competitions; sold limited-edition portraits, prints and postage stamps; given out certificates to his visitors bearing the first-ever image of his footprint and created crowdsourced photo and video montages celebrating Jonathan's life — including "everything he has lived through, the people who have connected with him and DNA research that could change our understanding of the aging process and of cancer." He is also depicted on the reverse of the island's 5-pence coin.

St. Helena's tourism website says it's also applying for a national holiday in Jonathan's honor.

It's an honor befitting the local celebrity and tourist attraction, who has met many high-profile visitors over the years, including the late Queen Elizabeth when she was still a princess in 1947.

Visitors today can still see Jonathan roaming the grounds at Plantation House, though it did implement some restrictions after what Hollins called "mobbing and inappropriate behavior by cruise-ship tours."

Teeny Lucy, another of Jonathan's caretakers, told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. that there is a strict policy of not doing anything to cause him undue stress — so no more children of visiting dignitaries standing on his shell for photos, for example.

"Tortoises, they don't move fast, and they contemplate everything. When I go up, it definitely reduces the anxiety that you might be feeling, and it's a slower pace of everything," she said. "He's a charming old gentleman. He really is."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.