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.