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Does this Aldabra tortoise look like a firefighter to you? (Expeditieteam Aldabra / Foto Natura / Minden Pictures)

Tortoises to the Rescue!

Scientists are bringing giant tortoises to the African nation of Madagascar to help stop forest fires

By Joe Bubar | July 12 , 2013

Madagascar, an island nation located off the southeastern coast of Africa, is home to some of the most unusual animals in the world. But many of these species may be in danger. Shrubs and low-lying plants have started to take up too much space on the forest floor, providing fuel for wildfires. So scientists are now using giant tortoises to help prevent the forest fires and thereby help the native wildlife in Madagascar.

Why? Long ago, giant tortoises lived all over Madagascar. Like bulldozers, they trampled and ate up many plants that grew on the forest floor. They also spread the seeds of native trees—keeping the ecosystem (the community of plants and animals within an environment) in check. But when humans settled on the island just over 2,000 years ago, hunting and deforestation (widespread cutting down of trees) caused the giant tortoises native to the island—along with dozens of other rare species—to become extinct.

Now, scientists plan to ship 300 close relatives of the extinct Madagascaran tortoises to the island. They hope that these tortoises will spread the seeds of native plants and chow down on the extra shrubs—just like their relatives did long ago.

SAVING AN ECOSYSTEM

To find the relatives, scientists at CIRAD, a French agricultural research center, studied the fossils of two species of Madagascar's extinct giant tortoises. They discovered that the extinct species were actually very similar to another group of giant tortoises that live about 250 miles away on the Aldabra Atoll, a group of islands in the Indian Ocean.

When the tortoises first arrive in Madagascar, they will live in an area closed off from the rest of the wildlife. There, researchers will watch the tortoises' every move to see how they react to the native plants. If all goes well, the tortoises will be released into the wild.

Similar missions have been successful in other places. Take the island of Rodrigues, located east of Madagascar, for example. Seven years ago, tortoises were brought there. Already, they are spreading seeds and keeping the shrubs from taking over.

If the same thing works in Madagascar, the giant tortoises may be used to help out other forests around the world.

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