For thousands of years the island of Mauritius was a paradise. Spat out of the ocean floor by a volcano eight million years ago, it was soon colonised by bird and reptile life. With warm sun, plentiful food and no predators to speak of, the island’s life was carved by the idilic isolation into new species – a cornucopia of flightless birds and unique reptiles.
Then, in 1598, demons came to make paradise their own. Accompanied their accustomed host of animal familiars – dogs, pigs, cats (and not a few rats) – the invaders found themselves facing an army of innocents. Curious and unafraid, Mauritius’ wildlife offered itself up for slaughter and, within just a few decades, much of the island’s uniqueness had been extinguished for eternity.
The most famous of the victims was a large flightless relative of the pigeon. Mocked for their lack of guile and flightless nature, the Portuguese invaders called the bird “Dodo” – meaning “stupid ass”, or “fool” – and set their familiars to work. Having never faced predators and unable to fly away, the adults fell prey to dog, cat and monkey. Meanwhile, defenseless in their nests on the ground, their eggs and young were easy picking for cats and rats.
Just eighty years after man’s arrival, the dodo, which had once numbered in the hundreds of thousands, slipped from the forests of existence and into the pages folklore.
Above: Dodos may not have been to the settler’s taste but they found plenty of other delicious creatures that, with no experience or fear of humans, were easy game
But its suffering didn’t end their. Instead of inspiring pity, their swift demise only served to reinforce their image of stupidity and, for centuries, the dodo has been the object of it's executioner’s ridicule.
Possible origins of the name dodo:
Dod-aarsen: stupid ass – Dodars: silly birds – Dodoor: sluggard – Doudo: fool or crazy.
One of the original names used for the dodo was "walghvogel" (loathsome bird) in reference to its taste
But this has begun to change. Until just a few years ago, all our knowledge of the dodo has come from mocking contemporary and unreliable secondary reports, a handful of taxidermised remains and just one complete skeleton. In fact, so little did we know about the real dodo, that, for some time in the 19th century, some scientists even doubted it ever existed at all.
Then in 2005, a team of Dutch and British scientists started to unearth thousands of dodo bones buried in a formerly swampy region of Mauritius known as Mares aux Songes (“Pond of Dreams”). Along with the remains of some 34,000 dodo were found the exquisitely preserved bones of bats, songbirds and about 300,000 giant tortoises.
The remains date back about 4,200 years ago, when the island was suffering from a prolonged drought. Mares aux Songes was a small fresh water lake that would have formed a freshwater oasis in an otherwise parched environment.
It is thought, while trying to reach the slowly-receding waters of the lake, the animals became mired in treacherous mud flats and died of thirst or suffocation in their their thousands.
Although small consolation for thousands of dodos that fell victim to the mud, the tragedy is helping to rehabilitate the image of this much maligned foul. The very fact that the dodo was still on Mauritius 4,000 years after a drought that claimed the lives some 500,000 animals, is a testament to the bird’s resilience.
Above: Humans first settled on Mauritius in 1598. Within 200 years many unique species had been driven to extinction at the hands of humans or the animals they brought with them