A tortoise is a tortoise is a tortoise – right? Wrong, actually. The differences in appearance between tortoises from the 13 main islands which make up the Galapagos were among the features which helped Charles Darwin formulate his theory of evolution.
This remarkable object from the Scarborough Museums and Galleries collection is a case in point. Once believed to be the only existing specimen of the long extinct Barrington Island tortoise, and therefore of extreme scientific value, it is now considered more likely to be of the sub-species Testudo galapagoensis, or a giant tortoise from Charles, or Floreana, Island – and, sadly, equally extinct.
Scores of British whalers stopped at the Galapagos Islands during the early 1800s – there was a settlement there, plus a mail exchange box where sailors left mail bound for England. But they also collected tortoises, which were a prime source of food – more than 100,000 are believed to have been taken. Charles Island was also the site of an early penal settlement, and hence the introduction of feral mammals which acted as predators. Now, less than 15,000 living members of 11 sub-species of giant tortoise are thought to remain in the Islands.
This specimen was donated to the Scarborough Philosophical and Archaeological Society in 1840 by John Wharton Esq. It was loaned to the Hon Walter Rothschild in 1913, who had it restored and had three casts made, which were given to the British Museum, the Tring Museum and the California Academy.