Description: The two species of Mauritian giant tortoises were very different in appearance. The long-necked Cylindrapsis triserrata was a saddle-backed tortoise while the smaller tortoise Cylindrapsis inepta had a dome-shaped back. Unlike the giant tortoises found in Mauritius today, which have been introduced from Aldabra, the native species did not have thick shells. This was probably an adaptation to the lack of predators in pristine Mauritius. The density of giant tortoises in parts of Mauritius was incredibly high and as such they played a key role in the ecosystem as grazers, browsers and seed dispersers.
- With man’s arrival on the Mascarene Islands, the tortoises were harvested as a food source and their young were killed by introduced animals such as pigs, cats, dogs and rats.
- Tortoises were a very prized source of food for passing sailors on account of their tasty meat and the fact that they could stay alive on board ships for months without food or water.
- Tortoises were boiled to extract their oil. A single barrel required 400-500 animals.
- Giant tortoises are likely to have become extinct from mainland Mauritius by about 1730 but they continued to survive on off-shore islets. It is likely the last native Mascarene tortoise was collected from Round Island in 1844.
- Many Mascarene plants exhibit heterophylly, i.e. different leaf types depending on their position on the plant. The presence of narrow tough leathery often distinctively coloured leaves close to ground level contrastind the plant against tortoise browsing. Feeding experiments using Aldabran tortoises (an “ecological analogue” to the extinct Mascarene tortoises) support this hypothesis.