When Dutch sailors first landed on the island of Mauritius in 1598 it was home to a thriving population of dodos. It took less than 90 years for them to vanish. What do we know of their habitat and can the original ecosystem ever be restored?
Unfortunately for Mauritius, when the European sailors arrived, they brought with them lots of carry-on animals. The pet monkeys, cats and rats aboard their ships would have escaped and found a land rich in unsuspecting prey.
Much of our knowledge of the Mauritian ecosystem before this time comes from an area called the Mare aux Songes in the south east of Mauritius.
According to avian paleontologist Julian Pender Hume, over 99% of all dodo bones discovered come from this locality. ‘It’s an amazing site. It’s 4,000 years old and it contains so many specimens, in fact thousands and thousands of insects, bird remains, mammal remains, and the whole ecology of Mauritius, long before humans arrived.’
Research at this site has enabled scientists to start putting the puzzle of that ecosystem back together.
Mauritius was once home to 2 species of giant tortoise. These animals, now extinct, were vital to the health of the forest because they ate the fruits and spread the seeds. Recently, a similar species, the Aldabra giant tortoise, has been introduced to the area to see if it could fulfil the same role. The project is a big success - in just a few years, the presence of the giant tortoise has resulted in the re-germination of many plants.
Other analogous species have also been returned, but as Julian says: ‘We have large lizards brought back, we have certain birds brought back, but unfortunately one bird that we cannot bring back is a dodo. Because there is nothing like it on Earth.’