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Ecological history and latent conservation potential: large and giant tortoises as a model for taxon substitutions

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Starting in the late 1970s, ecologists began unraveling the role of recently extinct large vertebrates in evolutionary ecology and ecosystem dynamics. Three decades later, practitioners are now considering the role of ecological history in conservation practice, and some have called for restoring missing ecological functions and evolutionary potential using taxon substitutes – extant, functionally similar taxa – to replace extinct species. This pro-active approach to biodiversity conservation has proved controversial. Yet, rewilding with taxon substitutes, or ecological analogues, is now being integrated into conservation and restoration programmes around the world. Empirical evidence is emerging that illustrates how taxon substitutions can restore missing ecological functions and evolutionary potential. However, a major roadblock to a broader evaluation and application of taxon substitution is the lack of practical guidelines within which they should be conducted. While the International Union for Conservation of Nature's reintroduction guidelines are an obvious choice, they are unsuitable in their current form. We recommend necessary amendments to these guidelines to explicitly address taxon substitutions. A second impediment to empirical evaluations of rewilding with taxon substitutions is the sheer scale of some proposed projects; the majority involves large mammals over large areas. We present and discuss evidence that large and giant tortoises (family Testudinidae) are a useful model to rapidly provide empirical assessments of the use of taxon substitutes on a comparatively smaller scale. Worldwide, at least 36 species of large and giant tortoises went extinct since the late Pleistocene, leaving 32 extant species. We examine the latent conservation potential, benefits, and risks of using tortoise taxon substitutes as a strategy for restoring dysfunctional ecosystems. We highlight how, especially on islands, conservation practitioners are starting to employ extant large tortoises in ecosystems to replace extinct tortoises that once played keystone roles.
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Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: April 1, 2010

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