Giant Tortoises Have a Sweet Tooth for Invasive Plants

By Diana Lutz, Washington University in St. Louis
April 8, 2015 Updated: April 20, 2015

Invasive plants and animals are almost universally lambasted for what they do to ecosystems, but giant tortoises on the Galapagos Islands might have a different opinion.

New research shows the iconic endangered animal thrives on a diet heavy on non-native plants. In fact, they seem to prefer these plants to native ones.

Introduced plants began to increase in abundance on the Galapagos Islands in the 1930s as native highland vegetation was cleared for agriculture, and the rate of introductions has been increasing ever since.

Fit and Feisty

The giant tortoises, for their part, seem headed in the opposite direction. Until the late Pleistocene epoch, they were found on all the continents except Antarctica. Today they survive in only two locations: the Aldabra Atoll in the Indian Ocean, and the Galapagos Archipelago in the eastern Pacific Ocean. In the Galapagos, all of the remaining subspecies are considered vulnerable or endangered.

In a surprising turn of events, field research in the Galapagos shows that introduced plants make up roughly half the diet of two subspecies of endangered tortoise. What’s more, these plants seem to benefit the tortoises nutritionally, helping them stay fit and feisty.

“Biodiversity conservation is a huge problem confronting managers on the Galapagos Islands,” said Stephen Blake, an honorary research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis.

“Eradicating the more than 750 species of invasive plants is all but impossible, and even control is difficult. Fortunately, tortoise conservation seems to be compatible with the presence of some introduced species.”

Tagged Tortoises

Published in the journal Biotropica, the study took place on the island of Santa Cruz, an extinct volcano that is home to two species of giant tortoise, but also to the largest human population in the Galapagos. Farmers have converted most of the highland moist zones to agriculture and at least 86 percent of the highlands and other moist zones are now degraded by either agriculture or invasive species.

In earlier work, Blake had fitted adult tortoises on Santa Cruz with GPS tags and discovered that they migrate seasonally between the arid lowlands, which “green up” with vegetation only in the wet season, to the meadows of the highlands, which remain lush year-round.

“This struck us as pretty odd, ” he said, “since a large Galapagos tortoise can survive for a year without eating and drinking. This is why sailors would collect the tortoises to serve as a source of fresh meat aboard ship.

“Why would a 500-pound animal that can fast for a year and that carries a heavy shell haul itself up and down a volcano in search of food? Couldn’t it just wait out the dry season until better times came with the rains?”

The answer, depends on the tortoise’s energy balance. But the only detailed study of tortoise foraging the scientists were aware of had been completed in 1980, “largely before the explosion of introduced and invasive species hit the Galapagos,” Blake said.

Bites and Bouts

Over a period of four years, the scientists followed tortoises in the field and during 10-minute “focal observations” recorded every bite the tortoises took—including both the plant species and which part they ate. As an additional measure of the fruits the tortoises were eating, they also counted and identified seeds (sometimes more than 1,000) in tortoise dung piles.

Counts of bites and bouts (defined as all feeding on a given species during the focal observations) showed that tortoises actually spent more time browsing on introduced species than on native ones.

“We weren’t really that surprised,” Blake said. “Consider it from a tortoise’s point of view. The native guava, for example, produces small fruits containing large seeds and a small amount of relatively bitter pulp in a thick skin. The introduced guava is large and contains abundant sweet pulp in a thin, pliable skin.”

The researchers also assessed the tortoises’ health and nutritional status, weighing them by suspending them from a spring balance and taking blood samples.

All of the indicators suggest that introduced species in the diet have either a neutral or positive effect on the physical condition of the tortoises. Introduced species may even help tortoises to improve their condition during the dry season.

Fredy Cabrera of the Charles Darwin Foundation in the Galapagos and Sharon Deem, a wildlife veterinarian and epidemiologist at the St. Louis Zoo, contributed to the work.

Diana Lutz is the senior news director in science for Washington University in St. Louis. This article was previously posted on Futurity.org.  Republished under Creative Commons License 4.0.

RECOMMENDED