Many 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.”
Following 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.