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The Aldabra tortoise is the largest animal on the atoll. The tortoises fill a niche very similar to the one occupied by elephants in Africa and Asia. As with elephants, they are the main consumers of vegetation and noticeably alter the habitat during their search for food. Tortoises have been known to knock over small trees and shrubs to obtain nutritious leaves. This makes pathways and clearings within the forestlands for other animals. Seeds pass through the tortoise's digestive tract and eventually become food for many other species.
The Aldabra tortoise has two main varieties of shells. Specimens living in habitats with food available primarily on the ground have more dome-shaped shells with the front extending downward over the neck. Those living in an environment with food available higher above the ground have more flattened top shells with the front raised to allow the neck to extend upward freely.
Aldabra tortoises are found both individually and in herds, which tend to gather mostly on open grasslands. They are most active in the mornings, when they spend time browsing for food. They dig underground burrows or rest in swamps to keep cool during the heat of the day.
February to May is the breeding season for Aldabra tortoises. A few months later, the female digs a nest. Where the soil is deep enough, the nest may be a well-hidden hole 10 inches deep. Where the soil is thinner, the nest may be only a shallow depression in the ground.
The female lays between four and 14 eggs (each about two inches in diameter). A female living in an area with many other tortoises lays fewer eggs than a female living in an area with low tortoise density.
Between three and six months after they're laid, the eggs hatch. The young reptiles are only about three inches long. They've got a lot of growing to do!
The Aldabra tortoise is one of the longest-lived animals on earth, if not the longest. No one knows exactly how long these animals are capable of living, but they are believed to easily surpass 100 years. So far, the tortoises studied have outlived the scientists studying them, and proper records have not been maintained.
This was one of the first species to be protected in order to ensure its survival for the future. Charles Darwin and other notable conservationists of the day along with the governor of Mauritius set aside a captive breeding population on Mauritius as well as protecting the Aldabra Atoll.
The Aldabra tortoise is the only remaining species out of 18 former species of tortoise that once flourished on the islands of the Indian Ocean. The others went extinct because of hunting by sailors and the predation of eggs and hatchlings by introduced species such as rats, cats, and pigs.
Aldabra tortoises, Geochelone gigantea (meaning"huge land turtle) are the world's second largest living tortoise species. They are second only to the Galapagos tortoise as the biggest land tortoise in the world. Aldabra tortoises can weigh more than 500 pounds, with a shell more than five feet long.
Primarily herbivores, Aldabra giant tortoises eat grasses, leaves, and woody plant stems. They occasionally indulge in small invertebrates and carrion, even eating the bodies of other dead tortoises. In captivity, Aldabra giant tortoises are known to consume fruits such as apples and bananas, as well as compressed vegetable pellets. Little fresh water is available for drinking in the tortoises' natural habitat, so they obtain most of their moisture from their food.
A peculiar habitat has coevolved due to the grazing pressures of the tortoises: "tortoise turf", a comingling of 20+ species of grasses and herbs. Many of these distinct plants are naturally dwarfed and grow their seeds not from the tops of the plants, but closer to the ground to avoid the tortoises' close-cropping jaws.
The main population of the Aldabra giant tortoise resides on the islands of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. The atoll has been protected from human influence and is home to some 100,000 giant tortoises, the world's largest population of the animal. Another isolated population of the species resides on the island of Changuu, near Zanzibar, and other captive populations exist in conservation parks in Mauritius and Rodrigues. The tortoises exploit many different kinds of habitat, including grasslands, low scrub, mangrove swamps, and coastal dunes.