Cylindraspis vosmaeri

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Kingdom Animalia

© 2009 Rafael Silva do Nascimento. 

All rights reserved. 

Courtesy by RSNature on deviantART.

Phylum Chordata
Class Reptilia
Order Testudines
Family Testudinidae
Genus Cylindraspis
Species Cylindraspis vosmaeri
Authority (Fitzinger, 1826)
 
TEW Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 2009
IUCN Status Extinct (EX), Year assessed: 1996
 
English Name

Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise, Rodriguez Greater (Saddleback) Tortoise, Carosse Tortoise

Dutch Name Rodrigues Zadelrugreuzenschildpad
French Name Tortue de Rodrigue
German Name Rodriguez-Sattelrücken-Riesenschildkröte
Portuguese Name Jabuti Gigante de Rodrigues
 
Synonyms Testudo indica Vosmaeri Schoepff, 1792; Testudo vosmaeri (Fitzinger, 1826); Geochelone vosmaeri (Fitzinger, 1826); Testudo commersoni Vaillant, 1898; Testudo rodericensis Gunther, 1873
 
Characteristics The Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise was the larger ones of the two species living on Rodrigues. It weighed up to 60 kg (North-Coombes, 1994; Cheke and Hume, 2008). This species was a 'saddleback' with an upturned front to its carapace, which enabled it to raise its head more and browse off higher plants than its relative the Domed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis peltastes) could.
 
Range & Habitat The Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise was endemic to the island of Rodrigues, Republic of Mauritius. (World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 1996)

Image: map showing the location of the island of Mauritius, the former range of the Saddle-backed Rodrigues 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.

 
Food Julien Tafforet (1726) said that the tortoises are fallen leaves and tree seeds. François Leguat (1707) and Abbé Pingré (1763) named specifically the fallen fruits of Latan palms (Latania verschaffeltii). (Cheke and Hume, 2008)
 
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. One Mauritius it then divided into two species. One of these Mauritian species (ancestor of Cylindraspis inepta) than invaded Rodrigues to the east and later Réunion to the west. On Rodrigues the giant tortoise divided into two species that differed in morphological features that are probably associated with niche exploitation. One was the Saddle-backed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis vosmaeri) and the other the Domed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis peltastes). (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)

Until 1708 the Rodrigues Giant Tortoises were exploited only by some pirates and the occasional Dutch vessel. In 1708 the journal of a Huguenot castaway, François Leguat, was published. Leguat reported large flocks of up to 3000 tortoises on Rodrigues. Leguat's report drew the attention of the French and British Navy to the islands. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999)

Below here three accounts on Rodrigues tortoises:

In 1691-93, François Leguat wrote: "We saw no four-footed creatures, but rats, lizards, and land-turtles, of which there are different sorts. I have seen one that weigh'd one hundred pounds, and had flesh enough about it, to feed a good number of men. This flesh is very wholsom, and tastes something like mutton, but 'tis more delicate: The fat is extremely white, and never congeals nor rises in your stomach, eat as much as you will of it. We all unanimously agreed, 'twas better than the best butter in Europe. To anoint one's self with this oil, is an excellent remedy for surfeits, colds, cramps and several other distempers. The liver of this animal is extraordinary delicate, 'tis so delicious that one may say of it, it always carries its own sauce with it, dress it how you will. . . The bones of these turtles are massy: I mean they have no marrow in them. Every one knows that these animals in general are hatch'd in eggs. The land-turtles lay theirs in the sand, and cover them, that they may be hatch'd. The scale of it, or rather the shell, is soft, and the substance within good to eat. There are such plenty of land-turtles in this isle, that sometimes you see two or three thousand of them flock; so that one may go above a hundred paces on their backs; or, to speak more properly on their carapaces, without setting foot to the ground. They meet together in the evening in shady places, and lie so close, that one wou'd think those places were pav'd with them. There's one thing very odd among them; they always place sentinels at some distance from the troop, at the four corners of the camp, to which the sentinels turn their backs, and look with their eyes, as if they were on watch. This we have always observ'd of them; and this mystery seems the more difficult to be comprehended, for that these creatures are incapable to defend themselves or to fly." (Leguat, 1707; Cheke and Hume, 2008)

In 1761, Abbé Pingré wrote: "The tortoise is not a pretty animal, but it was the most useful of those we found at Rodrigues. In the three and a half months that I spend on the island, we ate almost nothing else: tortoise soup, fried tortoise, stewed tortoise, tortoise forcemeat, tortoise eggs, tortoise liver - these were pretty much our only savouries. This meat seemed to me as good on the last day as on the first; I did not eat many of the eggs; the liver seemed to me the most delicious part of the animal. After five weeks stay I was attacked by dysentery which I kept secret, because I counted more on myself to heal it than the island's surgeon. Diet and rest put me right in a few days, but it left me with an extraordinary involuntary repugnance for this liver that I had so liked until then. Should I thus regard it as the cause of my indisposition?...Tortoise fat is very abundant and does not congeal; it is what is known as tortoise oil. This oil had no bad taste, it is very healthy, and we seasoned our salads with it, used it in frying and all our sauces. Rodrigues tortoises are foot and a half long and bout a foot across; they were formerly large, but they are no longer given time to grow. When a bigger one is found, it is called a carrosse. These carrosses cannot harm a waken man, though they have sometimes bitten sleepers hard. The shells of these tortoises served us like baskets to carry oysters and similar provisions. The flesh of these tortoises is the colour of mutton, and approaches it for taste." (Pingré, 1763; Cheke and Hume, 2008)

In 1795, Philibert Marragon, appointed civil agent by the Mauritian authorities, wrote: "The tortoises formerly so common seem to be completely destroyed. In more than a year since I have been here I have only seen two, and those in almost inaccessible gorges. This is a great shame for, in addition to their goodness, they would have been a great succour in this land totally without butcher's meat. Luckily turtles supply it during the laying season that lasts 6-7 months. One can provide for the whole year by putting them in enclosures; they could even be exported. The Hawksbill [= Eretmochelys imbricata] shows up sometimes its meat is not as good as [Green] turtle's, but the shell is pretty...I have little difficulty in believing that they [cats] have contributed to the destruction of tortoises, even turtles, by digging up their eggs or eating the hatchlings, especially on their way to the sea or when they swim along the shore for a while before diving. I have seen cats watching for and catching fish; it would not be astonishing if they took hatching turtles." (Cheke and Hume, 2008)

Overexploitation and invasive alien species led eventually to the extermination of the giant tortoises of the Mascarene Islands. The last reported tortoises on Rodrigues were found in the bottom of a ravine in 1795. (Austin & Arnold, 2001; Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999) The last positive indication of survival came from a report by Philibert Marragon in 1802; he mentioned that fires set by slaves to bushes and young plants "...making perish any tortoises that might be found, which is one of the causes rendering them extremely rare". A last few tortoises may thus still have lingered on Rodrigues until 1802 (Cheke and Hume, 2008). It is unknown which species on Rodrigues survived the longest.

 
Extinction Causes Hunting pressures and the introduction of predators and competitive species are thought to have contributed to the demise of this species. (World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 1996)
 
Conservation Attempts Several measures were taken to conserve the population on Rodrigues. The French East India Company decreed that Mauritians could only take tortoises from two small islands north of Mauritius, Round and Flat Island. When Mahé de Labourdonnais became Governor General of Mauritius and Réunion, he ordered an investigation into the 'tortoise-plundering' of the island. Thus he discovered that his own crews were the culprits. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999)
 
Museum Specimens

The only stuffed specimen (MNHN 1883.558) of this species can be found in the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle in Paris, France. A carapace (NNML 6000) can be found in the Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum (Leiden, the Netherlands) and another carapace (NMV 1461) in the Naturhistorisches Museum (Vienna, Austria). A fragment of a plastron (BMNH 2000.50), the nearly flat part of the shell structure of a tortoise, what we would call the belly, can be found in the National History Museum in London, United Kingdom. (Austin & Arnold, 2001)

The tortoise shell in the  National Museum of Natural History in Leiden, the Netherlands, is the holotype of Cylindraspis vosmaeri. It is a shell which was sent to Holland from the Cape of Good Hope without any data. In 1792 Johann David Schoepff, who had received a drawing and a description of the shell from Arnout Vosmaer, described it as "Testudo indica Vosmaeri", i.e. Testudo indica sensu Vosmaer. It was Leopold Fitzinger who in 1826 elevated Testudo vosmaeri to species level. Thus the species received its current scientific name several decades after it had become extinct. Only later it became clear that, since the species did not occur in the Cape region, it must have been sent from the Cape of Good Hope in transit, probably from Rodriguez. (Van den Hoek Ostende, 1999)

 
Relatives The closest relatives of this species became recently extinct. The closest related extinct species was the Domed Rodrigues Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis peltastes). Other closely related extinct species are the Réunion Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis indica), the Domed Mauritius Giant Tortoise (Cylindraspis inepta) 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.

 
Links

Cylindraspis vosmaeri - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - Cylindraspis vosmaeri

RSN: Cylindraspis vosmaeri - BioData (Portuguese)

 

References

(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.

Berthelot, Lilian (2002). La petite Mascareigne. Aspects de l'histoire de Rodrigues. Port Louis: Centre Culturel Nelson Mandela pour la Culture Africaine. 255pp.

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

Dupon, J.F. (1969). Receuil de documents pour servir à l'histoire de Rodrigues. Port Louis: Mauritius Archives, Publ.10. 121pp.

Leguat de la Fougère, François. (1707) '1708'. Voyage et avantures de François Leguat & de ses compagnons en deux îles déserte des Indes Orientales. Amsterdam: J.J. de Lorme. 2 vols. [see also Oliver (1891); reprinted 1984 with long introduction by J-M. Racault (Paris: Editions la Découverte, 244pp.) and again in 1995, with expanded introduction (Paris: Editions de Paris, 269pp.)].

Marragon, Philibert. (1795). Mémoire sur l'Isle de Rodrigue. MS TB5/2 in the Mauritius Archives, 17pp. [abridged version printed in Dupon (1969) & Berthelot (2002), qq.v.].

Marragon, Philibert. (1802). [letter addressed to the 'Citoyens Adminstrateurs Généraux des Éstablissements Français à l'Est du Cap de Bonne Esperance à l'Isle de France' dated '19 Thermidor an 10 (= 6 August 1802)]. MS TB5/1 in the Mauritius Archives, 3pp. [printed Pp. 53-55 in Berthelot (2002), qq.v.].

North-Coombes, G. A. (1994). Histoire des tortues de terre de Rodrigues. 2nd.ed. Port Louis: [author] x+100pp.

Pingré, [A-] Gui. (1763). Voyage à l'isle Rodrigue. MS 1804, Bibliothèque Ste.Geneviève, Paris [edited & re-arranged version of his diary MS 1803 (1760-62). Published 2004 with intro. by S. Hoarau, M-P. Janiçon & J-M. Racault, Paris: Le Publieur, 373pp.; also, abridged, in Alby & Serviable 1993].

Tafforet, Julien [attrib.] (ca. 1726). Relation de lisle Rodrigue. MS in the Archives Nationales in Paris. [published in full, in original orthography, in PRSAS 4: 1-16].

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 vosmaeri. In: IUCN 2004. 2004 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. <www.iucnredlist.org>. Downloaded on 12 March 2006.

Last updated: 29th August 2009.

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