South Dakota's Reptile Gardens houses the world's largest collection of reptiles, including frogs, lizards, crocodiles, snakes and tortoises. Its best known resident, a Galapagos tortoise named Methuselah, turned 125 this month. He's lived there since the 1950's. "The second weekend in June every year we celebrate his birthday," explains Gardens spokesman John Brockelsby. "It just so happens that this birthday is a big one, he's a century and a quarter; he's 125 years old."
Brockelsby, in contrast, is only a half-century or so old. He was just 3 when his father brought the giant tortoise to the South Dakota tourist attraction he'd opened in the 1930s. "He was our first big tortoise," Brockelsby recalls, adding that Methuselah's arrival was 'a big deal.' "[It] kind of put us in the big leagues, 'cause people don't see these guys very often. There are some at other zoos, but we're, I think, maybe the only one where we allow people to have contact with them. They can pet them and have their picture taken with them and things like that."
But, is being huge, friendly, and 125 years old really worth getting excited about? According to Bryan Milstead, the answer is a resounding "yes." Milstead heads the Vertebrate Ecology Section at the Charles Darwin Research Station in the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador. "I think it's clearly an impressive feat for any vertebrate to live to be this age," he says, "but for a Galapagos tortoise, this is pretty exciting. This animal has probably been settling in nicely into a later middle age. That it's 125 years old is impressive. But, more than likely, 50 or 75 years from now, that tortoise will be celebrating more birthdays there in South Dakota. It's an interesting anomaly that an animal can live to be that age."
He says Methuselah's birthday is also a chance to recognize his species' contribution to science. "[Giant tortoises] are also important due to the importance that they had in the development of the theory of evolution by natural selection. The variations among these and the differences among islands inspired Charles Darwin in some of his initial thoughts." The British naturalist first saw the giant tortoises in the Galapagos Islands during his round the world voyage in the 1830s.
The fact that tortoises have been on the planet for about 100,000,000 years, adds Dr. Milstead, combined with their astounding longevity, makes them individual scientific treasures that can actually be shared by multiple generations.
No one has documented the life span of Galapagos tortoises in the wild, but we do know that Methuselah is not unique. Harriett, a Galapagos tortoise at theAustralia Zoo, who died June 23 after a short illness, would have turned 176 this fall.
Zoo spokeswoman Louise Martin says she was originally taken from the Islands by Charles Darwin himself. "It really does make you realize just how special [they are]," Martin said, pondering what amazing things Harriet could have witnessed as the oldest animal in the world.
The secret to the longevity of the Galapagos tortoise, explains John Brockelsby, is their very slow metabolism, an excellent diet, and something he says we humans could take a lesson from. "They're our 'Gentle Giants.' And I think that the fact that they are such a non-aggressive animal... there's no viciousness about them. He doesn't get excited about anything. He moves in slow motion, he has no fat or cholesterol in his diet and he's completely non-aggressive. So, I always tell my human friends, you know if we could follow those things we could maybe add 20 years to our lifespan."
Lindsay Drake, 19, is trying to follow that advice. The veterinary student works with Methuselah on a daily basis, and says meeting a Galapagos tortoise, up-close-and-personal, is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime. "I think it's very important. It's sort of like, you know, seeing a dinosaur. We can just see the fossils of a dinosaur, but we can see these animals alive and well."
Alive and well is just what they are. Galapagos tortoises have been protected by the Ecuadorian government since 1959. Their once-dwindling local population is now estimated at 20,000. There's no official count of how many of these giant creatures are in captivity in the world's zoos but, given their lifespan, they should be around long enough for most people to catch a glimpse of a living piece of history.