Puzzle Inspired Story

Adwaita - a Hope For Longevity

Despite their sluggishness and the vulnerability it implies, tortoises have solved the survival puzzle remarkably well. The animals appeared about 225 million years ago when all Earth’s continents were still fused into a single mass called Pangea. They survived two major extinction events, the Triassic-Jurassic event 200 million years ago (during which 50% of all species perished), and the Cretaceous-Paleogene event 65 million years ago (which wiped out 75% of all species, including the dinosaurs). The most conspicuous element of tortoises’ solution is, of course, their shell. Fossil records suggest that the shell formed first on the animals’ breast by the broadening and fusing of the ribs. The underside armor protected the ancient reptiles when they swam in shallow waters against predators attacking from below.

Yet the most intriguing aspect of tortoise life is, perhaps, its longevity. Although many succumb to hunger, disease, or a fall from a precipice, some individuals live so long that their exact age is never completely certain. They often outlive generations of their owners and the relevant records vanish in the process.
To fully appreciate the life span potential of a tortoise, consider the case of Tu’i Malila (“King Malila”), an individual which made headlines in 1965 when it died on the South Pacific islands of the Tonga nation. It had been reported that the specimen, a Madagascar tortoise, was presented to the Tongan royals as a gift by none other but James Cook in 1777. Towards the end of its long life, the reptile was shown to Queen Elizabeth II during her tour of the Commonwealth Nations in 1953. When it died of natural causes, Tu’i Malila was estimated to be 188 years old. Since Captain Cook never visited Madagascar, however, doubts remain about the tortoise’s true age.

The year 2006 saw departures of two tortoises famous for their provenance and longevity. Harriet, a giant Galapagos tortoise brought back to England in 1835 by Charles Darwin himself, succumbed to old age at the Queensland Reptile Park in Brisbane, Australia (the animal had been taken to the Antipodes in 1841). Her well-publicized 175th birthday was celebrated at the zoo just seven months before the fatal heart failure. Consistent with the HMS Beagle captain’s records, DNA analysis suggested that the tortoise hatched around 1830. Yet the analysis also indicated that Harriet belonged to a subspecies from an island Darwin did not visit.

A credible claim for the longest living tortoise was made in 2006 by the West Bengali Zoo, in Kolkata, India. The giant Aldabra tortoise named Adwaita (“The One and Only”) lived there until its death at an estimated age of 255. Hatched around the year 1750, the animal was a pet of British Major-General Robert Clive of India. It easily outlived its owner and was taken to the Kolkata Zoo in 1875 where generations of caretakers tended to its needs and fed it carrots, lettuce, bread, grass, and other vegetarian staples. When the tortoise fell ill for the first time, eight years before its death, a full medical team was assembled to help it.

It is, perhaps, no coincidence that all three species of the tortoise mentioned above are considered threatened or endangered. These reptiles are facing the third major extinction event of their long tenure on Earth, one caused by humans, by their unchecked hunting and destruction of animal habitats.



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