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Lost Documents and the Mysterious Wildlife of Mauritius

It is always a tragedy when a species goes extinct; a whole, unique lineage of evolution with its entire natural history just gone as if it never existed. If we are lucky, we can preserve some traces of these doomed species, some record of what they were like or how they looked, maybe even preserved specimens or video footage of them so that they can remain at least alive in our memories of them and future generations can study them. However, in other cases, we have animals that were little understood, neglected, and poorly documented even in life. When these types of animals go extinct, we have nothing to remember them by, and we lose them completely without really having ever understood what they were like in the first place. They become less than a memory; a misunderstood, barely glimpsed ghost swallowed by oblivion and erased from history and existence forever with no hope of return.

It is a sobering thought that many species have been befallen with this fate, and perhaps nowhere else are there so many such tragic stories as on the remote Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. This is a land with a dark history of extinctions, of species badly ravaged by the effects of man and so little understood or documented at the time that they have truly been lost with a certain horrific finality. Mauritius over the centuries has become a black hole of numerous species that have gone extinct without us ever knowing anything about them. Recently, lost documents found buried within stacks of forgotten texts may finally open a window onto the lost historical biodiversity of Mauritius, and perhaps allow us to cobble together some understanding that will pull these lost species from an eternity of complete blackness.

Mauritius

Mauritius

Mauritius is an island that is part of the Republic of Mauritius, an isolated island nation that lies approximately 2,000 kilometers (1,200 mi) off the southeast coast of Africa, and is comprised of an archipelago of islands that are part of the Mascarene Islands, which also include the islands of Réunion and Rodrigues. Arab traders in the 14th century and later Portuguese sailors in the 16th century knew of Mauritius but never made any attempt to make settlements there due to its isolated location and impenetrable jungle terrain. The island remained uninhabited and used merely as a remote outpost to replenish supplies by ocean going vessels until Mauritius was colonized by the Dutch Republic in 1638, and later changed hands to the French in 1715.

Mauritius has long held historical importance. The island was considered to be a highly favorable strategic location, so much so that it earned the nickname “the Star and Key of the Indian Ocean,” and was an important base of operations for a trade route from Europe to the East prior to the opening of the Suez Canal. Mauritius would later come under British rule after France lost it to them in a power struggle in the region, and the country would finally gain independence on 12 March 1968.

Mauritius is perhaps most famous for its astounding diversity of unique wildlife, boasting a staggering variety of endemic flora and fauna for such a small area, and the islands are home to some of the rarest species of plants and animals in the world. The most famous of these animals is without a doubt the now extinct dodo (Raphus cucullatus), which was a flightless bird about 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) in height and weighing 10.6–21.1 kg (23–47 lb) that was last reliably recorded in around 1662, after less than a century of being ruthlessly hunted down by both humans and the various animals they brought to the island with them, as well as being ravaged by a plague of invasive species such as rats. The dodo was described as being a rather stupid bird, and totally unafraid of humans, said to just come right up to waiting hunters, which undoubtedly only served to speed along its doom. In addition, they were slow and weak, with no natural weapons, no means of escape, and totally ill prepared to do anything about marauding dogs or the voracious rats devouring their eggs. Insulated from the dangerous world outside and evolving with abundant food and no significant predators for millions of years, the dodo never stood a chance in the face of this new threat. The dodo is quite famous today, but no one really cared for it much at the time, and it disappeared quietly with a whimper. Although at the time the dodo’s extinction was barely even noticed, so swift and total was its demise that it has since become virtually synonymous with the concepts of extinction or obsolescence; an ominous symbol of the specter of being erased from existence.

An illustration of the dodo

An illustration of the dodo

Unfortunately, the dodo was not an isolated case. When the Dutch inhabited Mauritius, they brought with them numerous animals, some intentionally and some as stowaways, including dogs, cats, monkeys, rats, and various ungulates such as livestock and even deer. The island at the time had never had any form of terrestrial mammal, and the native wildlife of the island was totally unprepared to survive in the face of these weird invaders. As a result, an unknown number of endemic species found nowhere else in the world was wiped out in the onslaught.

One of the island’s mysteries has always been just what kind of species may have existed here before the coming of humans brought their devastation. The Dutch on the island at the time were notoriously bad at keeping records of the wildlife they found here, with most reports giving only the barest of information or merely cataloguing which ones tasted good or were easiest to catch. Even the now well-known dodo was poorly documented, and is largely known only from a scattering of vague written accounts and a handful of illustrations of living specimens that vary so wildly that it is hard to even be sure of what the birds actually truly looked like in life. Very little is known of the dodo’s actual habitat or its behavior, and the only physical remains we have are some fossils and partial remains of 4 specimens that were brought to Europe in the early 17th century.

Such a lack of in-depth documentation, vague descriptions, and poor records on the historical wildlife of Mauritius has made the true extent of its past biodiversity an enigmatic mystery for biologists. It was only recently that researcher Ria Winters, of London’s Natural History Museum, discovered an intriguing set of documents in the Netherlands’ National Archives that could change that and shed some light on the murky natural history of the island. Among a vast library of untranslated documents of the era, Winters found reports from a Dutch soldier on Mauritius by the name of Johannes Pretorius which provide more detail on some of the wildlife of the island than had previously been seen before.

Illustration of an early Mauritius settlement

Illustration of an early Mauritius settlement

Pretorius arrived in Mauritius in 1666, as part of a mission to check on the status of the colony after its commander had failed to make regular reports. It turned out that the commander was fine and the colony in perfect working order. Pretorius would spend the next three years on the island in the role of a comforter of the sick, or ziekentrooster, before leaving for South Africa in 1669 on another mission. It was during his time on the island that Pretorius would write the newly discovered report. Although it is unclear as to why the soldier authored the document, Winters’ colleague Julian Hume, an avian paleontologist and artist, thinks that it was probably a report written under orders from the commander on the suitability of the island for human settlement, such as what was suitable for consumption and what crops could be grown.

Among rather mundane descriptions of livestock such as cattle, goats and pigs, as well as musings on growing crops on the island and the difficulties of rats eating everything the settlers tried to grow, there are also entries on some of the indigenous wildlife of the island that has long gone extinct. The accounts offer a rare look back through a window in time, to vanished animals that are little understood and for which we have no photographic documentation and have until now had only the most general of descriptions. The report not only describes some the details of the appearance and behaviors of these creatures, but also rectifies some misunderstandings concerning them and even talks about the effects of introduced species.

One animal described by Pretorius is the raven parrot, also known as the broad-billed parrot, which was originally thought to be dark in color but now, thanks to the new documents, is known to have been rather brightly colored and mostly red. The raven parrot, which went extinct in 1675, is described in the account as having the physical ability to fly, but rarely doing so, preferring to remain on the ground. Pretorius describes the bird as being extremely tough and aggressive, so much so that it was able to fend off the rats, monkeys, and even dogs that threatened it. The bird was said by Pretorius to be “very bad tempered,” and was ferocious enough that settlers mostly avoided it. Additionally, it is described as not taking well to captivity, refusing to eat and preferring death to being in a cage, which probably explains why it was never brought elsewhere.

The raven parrot

The raven parrot

The report also talks about an enigmatic bird called the Mauritius blue pigeon, which he said had a warty face. This is rather anomalous because although other closely related species of pigeon also have warty faces, the Mauritius blue pigeon had been previously always depicted in illustrations and accounts of the era as having a smooth face. The new account shows us that it was in fact just as warty faced as its closest relatives, showing us that even what we currently think we know about these lost species might be wrong. Pretorius is quite sure in his descriptions, and tells of how he tried to unsuccessfully rear these birds on several occasions.

Another animal mentioned in the documents is the extinct flightless Mauritian red rail, an animal Pretorius describes as being exceptionally, hopelessly stupid. It was apparently so oblivious that it would make no attempt to hide from people and would make loud noises even when being actively pursued. It would also readily fly to hunters who waved things in the air at them. They were actively slaughtered, making easy pickings for settlers, but were said to taste bad, their meat described as “fatty and greasy.” The report includes other fascinating details on other wildlife on the island as well, such as the diet of the Mauritius giant tortoise, as well as observations of life on Mauritius at the time and the thick, impenetrable terrain of the island’s interior. The whole analysis of the account by Hume and Winters has been published in the journal Historical Biology.

The Mauritian red rail

The Mauritian red rail

It is fortunate that such accounts were found, but also troubling that they could have also very easily remained hidden among the tomes of other forgotten documents, tucked away and lost forever. What other such documents might there be out there sequestered away in a library or storage somewhere between dusty books and the frayed pages of forgotten, centuries-old reports? Might we not find other such gems of enlightenment if we are diligent enough to look for them? One can only hope that dedicated researchers like Winters will continue to toil away meticulously poring and sifting through these reams of documents, looking for a beam of light that will shed light on our understanding of the lost natural history of our world that lies in darkness.