The Dodo

Dodo Heads drawingMany spectacular island terrestrial vertebrates have disappeared over the past few centuries – a minutia in terms of geological time – yet the pitiful epitaphs of these vanished species comprise frequently just a few bones and a handful of inadequate historical accounts. Prior to the discovery of sufficient skeletal material, Strickland & Melville in 1848 presented a most fitting summary in their now classic monograph on the dodo Raphus cucullatus, highlighting the complications that study of a species so recently lost to the world could entail.

In the case of the didinae, it is unfortunately no easy matter to collect satisfactory information as to their structure, habits, and affinities. We possess only the rude descriptions of unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments, which have survived the neglect of two hundred years. The paleontologist has, in many cases, far better data for determining the zoological characters of a species which perished myriads of years ago, than those presented by a group of birds, which were living in the reign of Charles the First.

DodoFollowing the discovery of Mauritius by the Dutch in 1598, tales of the idyllic paradise soon spread around the maritime powers of Europe. Year-round fresh water, lagoons teeming with fish and dugong, an array of tame birds together with immense quantities of valuable ebony made the island an important staging post between west and east. Sadly, this paradise was altered beyond recognition and within a hundred years, many of the endemic species including the dodo became extinct. Virtually nothing was recorded about the dodo’s life history. After the discovery of the first skeletal material in the Mare aux Songes in 1865, the dodo received its first full anatomical description by Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum, London. Subsequent dodo research resulted in a number of publications; however, most were founded on speculation, an unfortunate practice that continues to the present day. The main basis for the assumptions lay in contrasting discrepancies in the early accounts, including contemporary and non-contemporary illustrations, and too much emphasis has been placed on these inaccuracies. Strickland and Melville were not misled by the available literature and their dodo monograph is testament to a cautious approach.

Mauritius

Mauritius is best known for its sunny climate and idyllic beaches, but it was once home to a variety of endemic plants and animals. The most famous was the Dodo Raphus cucullatus, and this bird has become a true icon of extinction. The island has now lost almost its entire fauna, and only about 1% of the original forest remains. The Mauritius Wildlife Foundation (MWF) has been at the forefront in preventing further extinctions, and their success in saving species such as the Echo Parakeet, Pink Pigeon and Mauritius Fody is unprecedented.

Mauritius has a number of islets within the surrounding lagoon, some like Ilot Sancho can be reached by walking, whereas others like Ile aux Aigrettes requires a boat. The latter islet is part of MWF’s conservation programme, and a number of endemic birds and plants can be viewed at close quarters. Mauritius has some interesting scenery and spectacular views. A hike up Le Pouce Mountain is well worth the effort, as on one side you see the rest of the Moka Range and on the other the central highlands, which are now a monoculture of sugar cane.

More photos from this expedition.


Seychelles

October 2001

Mountain view from SilhouetteLa DigueThe Seychelles comprise five main volcanic islands situated north of Madagascar in the south-west Indian Ocean. The largest island and central in the group is Mahé with tiny Aride Island to the north, the most easterly are Praslin and La Digue, with Silhouette and North Island to the west. If it is true paradise you are looking for then these are the islands to visit.

Fossil discovery on SilhouetteLa Digue is where many exotic adverts and films are made and the beauty of this island is exceptional. I surveyed all islands for fossils (honest) and found the first bird remains in a marsh on North Island and giant tortoise remains in a cave on Silhouette; the first for the archipelago. The choice places to visit are the haunting Coco der Mer palm forest, Silhouette Island for mountain views, Aride for the seabirds, Seychelles Magpie Robins Copsychus sechellarum pecking around your feet, and Seychelles skinks Mabuya sp. scurrying all over your legs. La Digue of course, for the whitest sand, most turquoise sea and the most graceful coconut palms overhanging the shore. Add giant brown granite boulders and the picture is complete.

More photos from this expedition.

The first fossil discoverySilhouette from North Island

Comoros Archipelago

May 2009

Chaoueni AnjouanMoutsamoudou beach rubbishThe Comoros Archipelago comprises four main volcanic islands situated between Mozambique and Madagascar at the north end of the Mozambique Channel. Running from east to west, the most easterly and the oldest is Mayotte, followed by Anjouan, then Mohéli the smallest, and finally Grand Comore, the largest with an active volcano, Mt Kathala, considered one of the largest craters in the world.

Arab quarter in AnjouanAnjouan, Moheli and Grand Comore form the Arabic Union of the Comoros, while Mayotte is French owned and a popular tourist island. The Arabic Union of the Comoros is considered one of the poorest nations in the world and proved logistically difficult to get around.

This was compounded by the non acceptance of credit cards for any payment including hotels and inter-island flights, no means to draw cash, and everything had to be paid in cash currency. The islands were surveyed for potential fossil sites but proved unsuccessful. For getting away from the comforts of home, however, this is the place to visit. Sites worth seeing are Mt Kathala, the Arab Quarter in Moutsamoudou, and the Chaoueni coast.

Here are some more images from this expedition.

Bazamini CaveThatched Mountain HutFlying FoxLocal Transport

China

August 2010

Tianenmen SquareForbidden CityThis trip centered on Pterosaur research in Beijing and I managed to get time off to see some sites. Beijing has almost permanent smog and can be almost unbearable on a hot day. Regardless, the Ming Temples, Forbidden City, Summer Palace and of course, the Great Wall of China are a must. Tianenmen Square has also now become a Mecca for tourism.

Giant PandaJapanese Crested IbisBeijing Zoo is worth a visit, and it is quite hard to imagine this vast park is surrounded by a concrete urban jungle and thick air pollution. For rare species, particularly the 12 Giant pandas Ailuropoda melanoleuca, the zoo is worth every penny, and other rarities include Japanese Crested Ibis Nipponia nippon, Tonkin Snub-nosed Monkey Rhinopithecus avunculus and Golden Takin Budorcas taxicolor tibetana.

Fossil Forrest

A seven hour trip to the north east took me to Liaoning and the fossil sites where many of the dino-birds have been recovered.  Two huge museums, Chaoyang Geo Park, and Sihetun Liaoning Province Museum, have been purposely built to hold the huge numbers of fossils and spectacular specimens recovered from the quarries. Most impressive was the Petrified Forest, resurrected as if the trees had been preserved vertically, and numbering over a hundred. China has surged forward in terms of palaeontology, and the museums are testament to the government’s new financial and political commitment.

Other photos from the expedition.

The Great WallGolden TakinSummer Palace