Rare dodo bones found on Mauritius

A Dutch-Mauritian research team has discovered remains of the extinct dodo bird on the Indian ocean island, dating back about 2 000 to 3 000 years.

“This new find will allow for the first scientific research into and reconstruction of the world in which the dodo [Raphus cucullatus] lived, before Western man landed on Mauritius and wiped out the species,” the researchers said.

The research team consisted of Dutch scientists Kenneth Rijsdijk (geologist), Frans Bunnik (palaeobotanist), Pieter Floore (archaeologist), Alan Grihault (a local dodo expert) and Christian Foo Kune, manager of the Mon Trasor et Mon Dasert (MTMD) sugar-cane plantation, which owns the area where the discovery was made.

Julian Hume, a British palaeontologist who is also a member of the research team, was able to more closely determine the bones’ age and origin.

The fossil material was excavated in an area of Mauritius called Mare aux Songes, a low-lying swamp area in the dry south-eastern part of the island, on land owned by MTMD.

So far, approximately 7,2 square metres have been excavated and more than 700 bones have been recovered.
All the bones were found in one layer, and therefore suggest a mass grave.

The discovery yielded several dodo bones, including remains of dodo chicks and a very rare part of the bird’s beak, only a few of which are known to exist.

In addition to the dodo remains, the find included bones of various other extinct bird species, indigenous giant tortoise species and a baby giant tortoise, as well as a large number of seeds and remains of partly extinct trees and plants.

Although some dodo bones were found in the 19th century in the Mare aux Songes, the site’s geology and ecology have never been researched.

This type of study is necessary to reconstruct the area’s landscape, wildlife and vegetation and to determine whether the animals may have perished en masse due to a natural disaster.

In addition, it will enable scientists to research how such a massive collection of bones, seeds and wood ended up in the swamp and how it has remained so well preserved.

Since dodo bones were discovered there in 1920, there have been no subsequent finds.

“Thanks to geological research, this mass grave was found. Julian Hume recently re-examined the material already found in the Mare aux Songes, and discovered some bones of dodo chicks as well,” the researchers said.

In future research on this site, the research team expects to discover some more remains of dodo chicks.

In order to allow for an accurate, systematic study of the site, an international team is being assembled.

The study will be performed by local botanical specialists from Mauritius in close cooperation with leading European institutes, including the Nationaal Natuurhistorisch Museum Naturalis from Leiden in The Netherlands, the London Natural History Museum and TNO’s Geological Survey of The Netherlands.

According to the Birds of Mauritius website, the dodo was a flightless member of the pigeon family native only to the island.

Fully grown dodos weighed about 23kg.

Around 1505, the Portuguese became the first Europeans to discover the island—and the dodo, which they quickly started killing for fresh meat.

By 1681, it had been driven to extinction by humans and the feral dogs, pigs, rats and monkeys introduced by Westerners.

The dodo was not the only Mauritian bird driven to extinction in recent centuries.

Of the 45 bird species originally found, only 21 still survive.

Two bird species closely related to the dodo have also become extinct: the Réunion solitaire (Raphus solitarius) by 1746, and the Rodrigues solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) by 1790.

Reports of sightings of living dodos in the 1990s on Mauritius prompted expeditions to search for them. None were found.

The dodo retains the unfortunate distinction of being among the first known animal species to be wiped out by the actions of man and not the evolution of nature—hence the saying, “as dead as a dodo”, to indicate a final demise.—Sapa

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