Cylindraspis indica


Kingdom Animalia

© 2009 Rafael Silva do Nascimento. 

All rights reserved. 

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Phylum Chordata 
Class Reptilia 
Order Testudines
Family Testudinidae
Genus Cylindraspis
Species Cylindraspis indica
Authority (Schneider, 1783)
TEW Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2009
IUCN Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 1996
English Name Réunion Giant Tortoise, Réunion Tortoise
Dutch Name Réunion Reuzenschildpad
French Name Tortue Géante de Réunion, Tortue Géante de Bourbon
German Name Réunion-Riesenschildkröte
Synonyms Cylindraspis borbonica Bour, 1978; Cylindraspis graii (Dumeril & Bibron, 1835); Testudo graii Duméril and Bibron, 1835; Testudo indica Schneider, 1783; Testudo perraultii Dumeril & Bibron, 1835.
Taxonomy The 1996 and 2000 IUCN Red Lists of Threatened Species included Cylindraspis borbonica as a separate species, this is now placed as a synonym of Cylindraspis indica (World Conservation Monitoring Centre 1996). DNA analysis has proved that the giant tortoises from Réunion belong to one variable species (Austin & Arnold, 2001; Cheke and Hume, 2008).
Characteristics The Réunion Giant Tortoise was a variable species. They vary from having domed to high-backed carapaces. (Cheke and Hume, 2008)
Food Only one visitor to Réunion mentioned the tortoises' diet: leaves fallen from trees (Cheke and Hume, 2008; Lougnon, 1970; Merveille in La Roque, 1716). It is assumed that the Réunion Giant Tortoise also grazed, browsed and ate fallen fruits (Cheke and Hume, 2008).
Range & Habitat The Réunion Giant Tortoise was endemic to the island of Réunion (to France) in the Indian Ocean (World Conservation Monitoring Centre 1996). They were most abundant on the dry west coast, but also high up in the interior (Cheke and Hume, 2008). Tatton's observation in 1613 (in Melet's manuscripts) showed that they were also numerous in the northeast, at least around Saint-Denis (Cheke and Hume, 2008; Melet, 1672; Tatton, 1625).

Image: map showing the location of the island of Réunion, the former range of the Réunion Giant Tortoise. Created by Peter Maas for The Extinction Website. This image has been released under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives 3.0 Licence. This applies worldwide.

History & Population Most likely the Cylindraspis tortoises derived from tortoises living to the west of the Mascarene Islands in Madagascar, the Seychelles and Africa. Ancient mtDNA derived from subfossil material and old specimens in museums confirms that the Mascarene Islands were inhabited by a group of five tortoise species that first reached Mauritius, presumably by floating there. On Mauritius it then divided into two species. One of these Mauritian species (the ancestor of Cylindraspis inepta) recently colonised the island of Réunion and produced the Réunion Giant Tortoise, Cylindraspis indica. (Austin & Arnold, 2001)

When first discovered around 1500, the Mascarene Islands had very large tortoise populations. These were heavily exploited after human settlement. (Austin & Arnold, 2001) Giant tortoises were a welcome dietary supplement during the long voyages in the age of sailing ships. They could survive more than fifteen weeks without drinking nor to eat and provided a fresh meat and of quality. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999)

Numerous other accounts exist (Cheke and Hume, 2008). Below here a selection:

In 1650, Du Quesne first described the Réunion Giant Tortoise: "There are vast numbers of them: their flesh is very delicate and the fat better than butter or the best oil, for all kind of sauces...the biggest ones can carry a man with greater ease than a man can carry them" (Day, 1981). 

In 1666, Carpeau du Saussay wrote: "At daybreak we left this enchanted landscape where we encountered only one inconvenience: it was the large number of tortoises, which came and assaulted us from all sides and often even pushed underneath us. We had a good deal of trouble defending ourselves, and as a result were unable to sleep. The tortoise is a very ugly animal, while being very good to eat; the liver is especially excellent. The oil is also splendid for frying all kind of things. In addition it has wonderful properties against pain, our surgeons often having happy proof of this. Tortoises are a good bit smaller [than turtles], and stand a foot off the ground on four limbs; they walk all over the mountain". (Cheke and Hume, 2008)

In 1671, Melet wrote: "The Tortoises found there are the size of two serving dishes. They are so thick on the ground here that although we [the crew of General de la Haye's fleet] ate two or three hundred every day, it appeared to have no effect and the numbers did not diminish. One sees them every hour of the day descending the mountains in herds of hundreds. What is best in this animal is the liver and the plastron which are very good, [and] their fat which when rendered into oil, which is as good and very healthy. One sometimes finds in a single [tortoise] three or four hundred eggs which are excellent, once well cooked. This animal has very short fat legs, such a distance it is hard to tell whether they walk or creep. They are surprisingly strong, for often on our walks we would put ourselves on their shells to see if they could support us without difficulty, but it was like they had nothing upon them. It is a very good refreshment for ships". (Cheke and Hume, 2008; Melet, 1672)

In 1671-1672, Dubois wrote: "The whole island is full of tortoises, which are one of the good mannas of this island. They have long necks and their heads are like European tortoises; a thick tail and four legs. They are two to three feet long, a foot and a half wide and a foot or more deep. One of these tortoises can carry a man on its back, but it is all a man can do to lift one. The flesh of the tortoise is like beef, and its tripe has the same taste. The liver of these animals is very large, and it is the most delicate morsel one could ever eat. Whoever had these in France would have good cheer on fast-days. There is enough to eat for four people in one of these livers. In the flanks of these tortoises are slabs that one extracts for melting down, and from which is extracted oil that never congeals. This oil is as good for all manner of things as the best butter; it is the island's butter. These slabs normally yield 2 pots of oil, more or less if the season allows the finding of fat appetite can satisfy themselves in one meal from one of these tortoises". (Cheke and Hume, 2008; Dubois, 1674)

In 1703, Luillier wrote: "These tortoises are found at the top of a mountain which is almost completely covered in them. Previously there were even more, but since the island has been settled, many have been destroyed. It is said a tortoise can live up to three hundred years, but since the island has no been long inhabited, this is uncertain. However, one sees them as much as six to seven feet in circumference, and inhabitants say that over several years there is no sign that they have grown. There is a season, when they lay their eggs, but is is the sun that incubates them. One thing worth commenting on is that for months each year they neither eat nor drink, while during the remaining eight months they lay their eggs and take what sustenance they need for the four others...Today there is the beginning of a shortage, and according to the inhabitants there are only enough for four [more] years". (Cheke and Hume, 2008; Lougnon, 1970) 

About 1732, an anonymous French chronicler pronounced them "utterly destroyed", suggesting that only a few Réunion Giant Tortoises survived (Day, 1981). They had disappeared by around 1730 on coastal Réunion (Cheke and Hume, 2008). It is known that some lived on in captivity until as late as 1773 (Day, 1981). Isolated groups in the interior of Réunion survived to the 1840s (Cheke and Hume, 2008). The Réunion Giant Tortoise is now extinct (World Conservation Monitoring Centre 1996).

Extinction Causes Réunion Giant tortoises were highly prized food animals, due to their ability to survive on board ships without food and water for months. These tortoises were collected in large numbers and loaded onto visiting ships. (Cheke and Hume, 2008)
Museum Specimens Two carapaces are kept in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, France. One (MNHN 7819) is the type specimen of Testudo indica, and the other (MNHN 9374) is the type specimen of Testudo graii. Three humerus bones are kept in the Natural History Museum (BMNH) in London, United Kingdom. (Austin & Arnold, 2001)
Relatives The closest relatives of this species became recently extinct. The closest related extinct species was the Domed Mauritius Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis inepta). Other closely related extinct species are the Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis vosmaeri), the Domed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis peltastes), and the Saddle-backed Mauritius Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis triserrata). 

Molecular and morphological research provide weak evidence that the genus Cylindraspis is related to tortoises living to the west of the Mascarenes in Madagascar, the Seychelles and Africa. (Austin & Arnold, 2001)

Image: a male and female Aldabra Giant Tortoise (Dipsochelys dussumieri) in Artis Zoo, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Photographed by Szilas on 21 June 2008. The copyright holder of this work has released it into the public domain. This applies worldwide.


Cylindraspis indica - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia



(Complete website)

Austin, J.J., Arnold, E.N. (2001). Ancient mitochondrial DNA and morphology elucidate an extinct island radiation of Indian Ocean giant tortoises (Cylindraspis). Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Volume 268, Number 1485, Pages: 2515-2523.

Barnwell, Patrick J. (1948). Visits and despatches, 1598-1948. Port Louis: Standard Printing Establishment. 306pp.

Cheke, A., Hume, J. (2008). Lost Land of the Dodo, An Ecological History of Mauritius, Réunion & Rordrigues. T & AD Poyser, London.

Day, D., (1981), The Doomsday Book of Animals, Ebury Press, London. ISBN 0 85223 183 0.

La Roque, Jean de. (1716). Voyage de l'Arabie Heureuse. Paris: Cailleau. xvi+416pp. [includes Gollet de La Merveille's acount of Mauritius (pp.171-185) & Réunion (pp.185-211), extracted in Barnwell (1948) & Lougnon (1970).

Lougnon, A. (1970). Sous la signe de la tortue. Voyages anciens à l'Ile Bourbon (1611-1725). 3rd.ed. Saint-Denis: [author]. 284pp. [reprinted 1992, with new illustrations, added by A. Vaxelaire, as '4th ed.'; Saint-Denis: Azalées Éditions].

Melet, [?Jean-Jacques] de, (c1672). Relation de mon voyage aux Indes Orientales par mer...[Publ. 1999, ed.A.Sauvaget (with intro., pp.95-102). Études Ocean Indien 25/26: 103-289].

Tatton, J. (1625). A journall of a voyage made by the Pearle to the East India wherein went as Captain Master Samuel Castleton of London and Captain George Bathurst as Lieutenant: written by John Tatton, Master. Pp.343-354 in vol.3 of S.Purchas (ed.) Hakluytus Posthumus, or Purchas his Pilgrimes, containing a history of the world in sea voyages and lande travells by Englishmen and others. [reprinted 1905-7, Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 20 vols.]

Van den Hoek Ostende, L.W. (1999). Rodriguez Giant Tortoise - A most welcome dietary supplement. 300 Pearls - Museum highlights of natural diversity. Downloaded on 12 March 2006. 

World Conservation Monitoring Centre (1996). Cylindraspis indica. In: IUCN 2008. 2008 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <>. Downloaded on 03 May 2009.

Last updated: 29th August 2009.

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