Jonathan the Tortoise Turns 190, Plus More Good Climate News

Clockwise from top left. A small bee on an orange flower, a tiny sugar glider, Jonathan the tortoise, and a snowy river lined with trees.

The world’s oldest living land animal, a giant tortoise, turns 190 this year, while a small Californian city is leading the entire U.S. with its electric car-sharing revolution.

In Australia, the rare mahogany glider may have found a new island home, and in Norway, the previously dammed Tromsa River is now open for fish to migrate up and downstream.

Meanwhile, a study by University of Bristol researchers has found that small gardens are just as important to pollinators as large ones; welcome news for gardeners everywhere.

Here’s this week’s good climate news.

Photo shows Jonathan the tortoise on his island home of St Helena.
Jonathan the tortoise lives with his two companions, Fred and Emma. | StHelena/Getty

This tortoise is the world’s oldest living land animal

The good news: Jonathan the tortoise will turn 190 later this year, two years older than the previous tortoise record-holder, Tu’i Malila.

While several marine creatures have even lengthier lifespans, including Greenland sharks at 300-500 years and the potentially immortal jellyfish, tortoises are typically the longest-lived land animals. (Adwaita, a male giant tortoise who lived in Kolkata, India, was thought to be more than 255-years-old with an astounding approximate birthdate of 1750.)

The impact: Due to his admirable longevity, some of the details about Jonathan’s story are open to interpretation. He arrived at the remote island of St. Helena from Seychelles in 1882 fully mature, meaning that he was at least 50-years-old at the time. However, it is fairly likely that Jonathan is even older than his estimated age of 190.

Either way, the now-ancient reptile has been present for nearly two centuries of world history, from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency to the moon landing. Jonathan is a local icon in St. Helena, and even appears on the reverse side of the island’s five-pence piece. Today, he resides at Plantation House, the official residence of the governor, and spends his days eating, sleeping, and mating with his two close companions, Fred and Emma.

Did you know: Jonathan is a Seychelles giant tortoise, a subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise, which can grow up to four feet in length and weigh up to 250 kilograms. (That’s around the same as an adult male grizzly bear.)

While not endangered, giant tortoises are classified as vulnerable, and conservation work is currently underway to increase and support the global population. Hunting, poaching, and the international pet trade have reduced their numbers significantly during Jonathan’s lifetime.

How you can help: Unfortunately, an increasing number of people adopted giant tortoises as pets from breeders and importers during the pandemic. (Many of the top Google results for the species online relate to cost of purchase and similar queries.)

One of the best ways to combat the problematic wildlife trade is to become an advocate, raising awareness of the problems facing species such as giant tortoises. You can also support organizations such as the Galapagos Conservancy, the WWF, and Island Conservation. United for Wildlife is working to stamp out the illegal wildlife trade for good.

Aeriel image shows a lone car driving on a long stretch of rural road surrounded by crops.
Electrified rideshare systems could be the future of sustainable transportation. | PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

A small city is leading the way on electrified ride sharing

The good news: The rural city of Huron, California, has successfully introduced an electrified rideshare system to help its citizens get around for free. Despite its small permanent population, Huron attracts thousands of seasonal laborers and migrant workers during harvest seasons.

The central California city has historically been a transportation desert, but Mayor Rey León’s Green Raiteros project provides a free, electrified ride-sharing service to residents. Its costs are covered by various grants from climate programs, some of which the state requires major industrial polluters to fund. (Take note, other states.)

The impact: According to the Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC), a public-interest partnership promoting equity and community in the face of climate change, Huron has a long history of informal ridesharing often found in predominantly Latinx communities. (The word “raitero” itself is a Spanglish term based on “raite,” slang for “ride.”)

By offering free, community-led, and low-impact transportation, the mayor has managed not only to support his geographically-isolated community but also to show the rest of the U.S. how best to move forward with EVs.

Did you know: Due to the success of Green Raiteros, there are already 30 electric car charging stations in Huron, comparable to pretty much anywhere else in the U.S. despite its modest population of around 7,000 people.

This serves as a notable example of why improving both access to transport and overall electrification must focus on equity and community rather than private ownership. In stark contrast, very few other cities are actively attempting to integrate electric vehicles into underserved and low-income areas, which will undoubtedly result in problems down the line when fossil fuel-powered vehicles are phased out entirely.

How you can help: Find out if community ridesharing is available where you live. Ridesharing helps to increase people’s access to transportation and cuts neighborhood carbon emissions at the same time. Check out SUMC’s upcoming webinar calendar about mobility justice here, and learn more about the potential of electric cars to revolutionize transport (and their shortcomings) here.

Photo shows a sugar glider peeking out of a tree stump.
The mahogany glider is closely related to the sugar glider, pictured. | DikkyOesin/Getty

Rare gliding possums have a new home

The good news: According to a report by the Guardian, the rare mahogany glider (a type of possum and a close relative of the adorable sugar glider) could be present on Hinchinbrook Island, one of Australia’s largest island national parks. The pristine wildlife preserve is located less than 10 kilometers from the mainland, where around 80 percent of the creatures’ habitat has already been lost. The small remainder is badly fragmented due to human activity.

The impact: If present on the island, Hinchinbrook’s mahogany gliders would have been undisturbed for a few thousand years at this point. But even if the island is only home to the sugar gliders that have been spotted so far, it would still be an ideal location for rewilding the rare gliding possum. According to the most recent estimates, there are less than 2,000 left worldwide, but the most recent population data comes from before 2011’s Cyclone Yasi swept through the mahogany gliders’ home and wiped out essential habitat.

Did you know: The Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland says that the mahogany glider, named due to its richly colored belly and reliance on swamp mahogany trees, can glide up to 30 meters using thin membranes that run between its limbs and body. (Think Spider-Man circa 1962.) Because mahogany gliders feed on pollen and nectar, they are important pollinators within their ecosystems for various flora like banksia and eucalyptus.

How you can help: The Australian government has a recovery plan for the mahogany glider, and charities such as FAME and WWF Australia are carrying out important conservation work. Overall, habitat destruction is the main threat to the remaining gliders, and urgent work to maintain and connect the species’ ecosystem will make the most significant difference in the coming years. If you live in Queensland, Australia, learn more about making nest boxes here

Photo shows a river flanked by snow against an orange-tinted sky.
Free-flowing rivers are essential for healthy waterways. | Anton Petrus/Getty

A river in Norway is open to fish for the first time in a century

The good news: Fåvang, Norway, just removed a seven-meter high dam in order to free up the Tromsa River for fish migration. The dam has blocked the waterway for 100 years but has remained unused for the last 50. A variety of the region’s native fish are expected to flourish in the newly opened river, and the move represents a broader movement across Europe to tear down disused dams and blockages that threaten fish populations.

The impact: As on land, links between various separate marine ecosystems are extremely important for wildlife to thrive. Fish such as salmon and trout are known to migrate, with the former traveling thousands of miles in order to feed and reproduce. Migratory freshwater fish populations fell by an astounding 90 percent between 1970 and 2016, and opening up rivers such as the Tromsa to free-flowing water could significantly boost biodiversity.

Did you know: Norway is the beautiful home to countless flora and fauna, and the country’s rivers are no exception. As the WWF notes: “Rivers underpin entire landscapes, and contribute to economic growth, food security and human well-being. Free-flowing rivers are uniquely important, providing healthy floodplains, recreation, thriving freshwater habitats, abundant fish stocks, among others.”

How you can help: Learn more about Europe’s ongoing dam removal here, and organize your own dam removal here. Learn more about river habitats and get involved locally with the Freshwater Habitats Trust (U.S.) or the Freshwater Society (UK). There are many grassroots and locally organized river cleans taking place all the time, so find one near you and help out!

Photo shows a small bee perched on a vibrant orange flower.
Even small gardens are important refuges for pollinators such as bees. | Jacky Parker Photography/Getty

Small urban gardens help pollinators, too

The good news: Researchers at the University of Bristol, UK, just revealed that small gardens are just as important as big ones when it comes to conserving wildlife and pollinators within cities. The study comes as good news for urban gardeners, particularly in the wake of the pandemic, which prompted countless people to get outside and explore their green thumbs.

The impact: Published in the journal British Ecological Society, the research indicates that while the style of garden and plants used makes a significant difference, the combination of various gardens makes urban areas a rich source of nectar for pollinators and other insects.

Did you know: Bees aren’t the only important pollinators, and your garden could also be home to butterflies and moths, birds, beetles, bats, and countless other critters. Overall, pollinators facilitate the growth of plants and trees and fulfill a huge and irreplaceable range of ecosystem services. Beetles, for example, are thought to be earth’s very first pollinators, while bats pollinate, disperse seeds, support reforestation, and even indicate biodiversity.

How you can help: The study also made some key gardening recommendations for making green spaces extra-friendly to pollinators. Shrubs, climbers, and trees provide two-thirds of all nectar, and thanks to their three-dimensional structure, they’re an extremely space-efficient source of food for bees and other insects.

Rewilding part (or all) of your green space will help not only pollinators but all local wildlife. Even if you don’t have access to a private green space, you can plant native wildflowers and other important flora out in your community, and many people choose unused lots and other wasted public (and private) spaces as an opportunity to encourage and support local wildlife.

Looking for more good climate news? Read the previous installments here.