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The mystery of Darwin's pet tortoise.

Posted by John Jackson on Jan 20, 2011 4:38:23 PM

Charles Darwin, during his voyage on HMS Beagle, collected a single juvenile tortoise from James (San  Salvador or Santiago) Island in the Galápagos Archipelago.

 

This animal was returned to England with three other small tortoises and examined by J.E. Gray, who became Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum (the natural history departments at the BM eventually became what is now the Natural History Museum).

 

The subsequent fate of Darwin’s pet tortoise has been the source of much speculation. Some have claimed that it was transported to Australia (where it lived to an age of more than 175 years); others that it remained in England but disappeared without trace.

 

However, a new paper by Colin McCarthy (Zoology) and Aaron Bauer describes how Darwin’s pet was in fact registered in the British  Museum collection in 1837 and that the specimen still exists:albeit with its registration details hidden on the inner face of the lower shell (plastron).

 

The obscurity of the labelling probably caused these data to be overlooked for more than 170 years. The chelonian (tortoises and turtle) catalogues of Gray, Günther and Boulenger, published between 1844 and 1889, all failed to recognise this specimen as Darwin’s tortoise, mentioning it only as a stuffed juvenile of unknown provenance.

 

Despite this, Günther placed the specimen in his newly defined species Testudo ephippium, which was subsequently regarded as endemic to Abingdon (Pinta) Island in the Galapagos. The confirmation of the specimen’s James Island origin means, however, that Darwin’s pet tortoise is, most appropriately,  a member of the species Chelonoidis darwini.

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

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