Assessing the potential to restore historic grazing ecosystems with tortoise ecological replacements

Christine J Griffiths, Nicolas Zuël, Carl G Jones, Zairabee Ahamud, Stephen Harris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

21 Citations (Scopus)


The extinction of large herbivores, often keystone species, can dramatically modify plant communities and impose key biotic thresholds that may prevent an ecosystem returning to its previous state and threaten native biodiversity. A potentially innovative, yet controversial, landscape-based long-term restoration approach is to replace missing plant-herbivore interactions with non-native herbivores. Aldabran giant (Aldabrachelys gigantea) and Madagascan radiated (Astrochelys radiata) tortoises, taxonomically and functionally similar to the extinct Mauritian giant tortoises (Cylindraspis spp.), were introduced to Round Island, Mauritius, in 2007 to control the non-native plants that were threatening persistence of native species. We monitored the response of the plant community to tortoise grazing for 11 months in enclosures before the tortoises were released and, compared the cost of using tortoises as weeders with the cost of using manual labor. At the end of this period, plant biomass; vegetation height and cover; and adult, seedling, flower, and seed abundance were 3-136 times greater in adjacent control plots than in the tortoise enclosures. After their release, the free-roaming tortoises grazed on most non-native plants and significantly reduced vegetation cover, height, and seed production, reflecting findings from the enclosure study. The tortoises generally did not eat native species, although they consumed those native species that increased in abundance following the eradication of mammalian herbivores. Our results suggest that introduced non-native tortoises are a more cost-effective approach to control non-native vegetation than manual weeding. Numerous long-term outcomes (e.g., change in species composition and soil seed bank) are possible following tortoise releases. Monitoring and adaptive management are needed to ensure that the replacement herbivores promote the recovery of native plants. Estudiando el Potencial para Restaurar Ecosistemas Históricos de Forrajeo con Reemplazos Ecológicos de Tortugas Terrestres.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)690-700
Number of pages11
JournalConservation Biology
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013

Bibliographical note

© 2013 Society for Conservation Biology.


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