Extinction isn’t preordained. Species have no idea if they will vanish from the face of the Earth forever. Yet they do.
An animal’s daily life is a struggle for survival: find the next meal, avoid being eaten. Many individuals die. Rarely such circumstances alone lead to a loss of an entire species. For that to happen, stronger factors play a part; climatic changes, continental drift, even volcanic eruptions on a small island can wipe out whole ecosystems. A species isn’t more advanced or special because it survived an extinction event. Each of the thousands of millions of species that have lived on this planet have been perfectly suited to their environment. Luck plays a huge part. Well, luck used to play a part.
When an animal or plant is gone, it is gone. Forever. A unique organism, a unique result of 4 billion years of evolution, lost.
For me, the saddest thing about extinction is the thought of that last individual. For if a species is to vanish, there will always be just one left at the very end. One lonely individual. Just imagine the last dodo. It’s long, flat scale covered toes gently crunching down on top of dead leaves as it plods through the forest looking for fruits to eat. Perhaps a little ruffle of its feathers before it shuffles down to sleep. And it’s squawk echoing through the empty forest as it calls for a mate. Only the squawk is never answered. It lived it’s last days alone. And it died alone.
The common name of this beautiful bird is firmly rooted into our language in a negative way. We have all heard the phrases ‘as dead as a dodo’ or ‘going the way of the dodo’. (One I wasn’t aware of was the insult ‘you dodo’ which is used when calling someone stupid.) The birds even appeared in the wonderful animated Ice Age film, where they are not the brightest creatures, spectacularly falling to their deaths (and one makes a cameo appearance in Ice Age 2).
This iconic bird is the epitome of extinction. The very name is associated with stupidity. And illustrations of dodos do look wonderful, with their oversized bodies and large beak. It shouldn’t be hard to change how something is labelled, should it? I want to try.
The story of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) begins not when they were first discovered, but way back to when Tyrannosaurs rex stalked the land. An enormous bubble of hot magma rose from the belly of the Earth, and erupted. 66 million years ago, the Earth bled. And it did so for tens of thousands of years. Several eruptions spewed out enough lava to completely cover Britain. Twice. Like layers of crusty, dried blood, the Deccan Traps in India are evidence of this massive eruption. This gigantic underground magma aquifer didn’t stop there. As the continental plates moved, the magma hot spot stayed put. It erupted again around 40 million years ago, and lay there quietly beneath the surface for the next 30 million years or so. In this time the continents had moved a lot, and the hot spot now lay waiting under the African Plate. Sometime around 10 million years ago, the hot spot erupted once more, slowly forming the Mascarene Islands.
Just east of Madagascar, the small island of Mauritius was born. Seeds and mini-beasts were blown in the wind, some reptiles washed ashore on logs after storms, and birds, flew off track all ending up on this islands. Many would have died. But many did survive. What began as a bleak black igneous rock protruding out of the sea slowly began to change to a vibrant green, full of life. Genetic analysis has shown that the closest living relative to the dodo is the rather handsome Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica). The ancestors of the dodo, and the Nicobar Pigeon, likely ‘island hopped’ (or flew from island to island) eventually ending up on Mauritius.
Once here, the bird was in an untouched environment. There were no mammals. There were no real predators. The dodo’s ancestor lost the ability to fly, and became adapted to live on the forest floor. It became a bigger bird, with a bigger beak; perfect for picking seeds, fruits, bulbs and roots. One Dutch account records a nest on the ground made of grass, where the dodo laid just one egg. There was no need for this beast to nest high in the trees, for there were no threats. This was no dumb animal. This was an animal perfectly suited to it’s environment.
Mauritius was known to the Arab and Portuguese in the 13th to the 16th Centuries. But there are no records of the wildlife and the island was used only sporadically. The Dutch took control and made first contact with the island in 1598. And they made the first recorded sightings of the dodo. Despite being observed for many years, there are very few museum specimens of dodos from that time. A number of live specimens were transported back to Europe and Asia, but no one knows if they survived. A handful of remains from live dodos do exist: a dried head and skeleton foot at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; a skull in the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum; and an upper jaw and leg bones in the National Museum, Prague.
A few skeletons do exist. A unique site on Mauritius, Mare aux Songes is a swamp land that has preserved the bones of over 300 dodos. The skeletons were jumbled and incomplete. Fossils were sent to the Natural History Museum, London which were used to reconstruct a skeleton of the dodo using bones from many individuals. The Museum Naturalis in Leiden also used several fossilised bones to reconstruct a skeleton.
Within just about 100 years of the dodo being first recorded, it was gone. A pretty quick extinction which appears to have happened only after humans arrived. Are we responsible for this wonderful looking bird’s disappearance?
In an indirect way, yes.
Studies at sites in Mauritius suggest that the dodo may have been undergoing some stress before humans arrived. Lots of individuals were killed by flash flooding, or getting tramped in swampy marsh areas. Sadly, they never got the chance to regain their numbers.
Dodos weren’t eaten to extinction. Sailors apparently were not too keen on the dodo meat – one of the early Dutch words for the bird was ‘walghvogel’ meaning ‘tasteless bird’ or ‘sickly bird’. With plenty of other birds and reptiles to feast on, they didn’t need to be fussy. So what happened to this big bird?
The settlers needed land, so they cleared a lot of the ebony and bamboo forests. With around just 100 people, they had created space to grow crops and to live. More ebony was chopped down to be sold. Within an incredibly short time, the home of the dodo was shrinking fast. (Mauritius is a small island, around the size of the Yorkshire Dales.) The killer blow came from the animals the settlers brought with them. More forest was cleared for cattle to graze. Goats and pigs roamed free, quickly having an impact on the botany of the island. Cats and hunting dogs roamed, often killing the local wildlife. And of course, sneaky rats made their way off ships and spread across the island. All of a sudden, the ground dwelling nests of this bird were incredibly vulnerable. The single egg was easily eaten by the rats and pigs, stopping the next generation in its tracks.
There was no time to adapt. No random genes that gave a dodo the edge. It was all too quick.
Many other animals and plants vanished along with the dodo. Several species of birds vanished, including an owl, a heron and a duck; all unique to Mauritius. Two species of giant tortoise and a giant skink also vanished. The destruction of the habitat not only had an effect on the dodo but on the ecosystem as a whole. It would never be the same again.
Today Mauritius is a beautiful, sunny getaway for those who can afford it. Soft, fine white sand covers the beaches; the cleanest looking sand you ever did see. The crystal clear turquoise water invites all to jump in to splash and paddle. The main attraction for a holiday in Mauritius is to relax and be surrounded by unspoilt beauty. Sadly this is not natural beauty. It is a beauty that suits humans. The pristine beaches have a dark secret: in the early hours of the morning, workers scour the beaches picking up debris that washed up from the night before. 400 years ago Mauritius would have been truly unspoilt, with giant tortoises ambling along the edge of the forests, and dodo birds leaving their large footprints in the sand. What a wonderful sight that must have been.
Personally, I dislike beach holidays. I get itchy feet, bored. I want to be up, exploring ancient sites, or peering under fallen logs. I wonder how many of those sunbathers know that this island was once a unique ecosystem. Do they know that a dodo walked on the very beach they sun themselves on?
The dodo became extinct sometime around 1700, just a hundred years after it was first discovered. We don’t know how long that last individual was alone for. No one heard the last squawk of the dodo.
Written by Jan Freedman (@Jan Freedman)
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