Extinct giant tortoise was the ‘mammoth’ of Madagascar 1,000 years ago

Native tortoise species of the western Indian Ocean, with living species in color and extinct species in gray. The newly identified Astrochelys rogerbouri is on the top, the third tortoise (in gray) from the right. (Image credit: Drawings by Michal Roessler and photo by Massimo Delfino)

At least a millennium ago, a giant tortoise crept through Madagascar, grazing on plants by the boatload — a bountiful diet that made it the ecosystem equivalent of mammoths and other large herbivores. And like the mammoth, this previously unknown giant tortoise is extinct, a new study finds.

The scientists discovered the species while studying the mysterious lineage of giant tortoises living on Madagascar and other islands in the western Indian Ocean. After stumbling across a single tibia (lower leg bone) of the extinct tortoise, they analyzed its nuclear and mitochondrial DNA and determined that the animal was a newfound species, which they named Astrochelys rogerbouri, according to the study, published on Jan. 11 in the journal Science Advances (opens in new tab). The tortoise’s species name honors the late Roger Bour (1947-2020), a French herpetologist and expert on western Indian Ocean giant tortoises.

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