January 8, 2006

Fossil Find Sparks New Interest in Mauritius Dodo

By Nita Bhalla

MARE-AUX-SONGES, Mauritius -- Hidden in the depths of sugarcane plantations, the marshlands of Mare-aux-Songes have been forgotten for centuries

But the recent discovery of a mass grave of dodos, the extinct flightless bird whose name became synonymous with stupidity, has rekindled interest in learning how the bird lived, what it ate and its natural habitat.

The rare find in southeast Mauritius by a Dutch-Mauritian team will enable researchers to discover more about the Indian Ocean island's native bird, which was wiped out in the late 17th century.

The Mon Tresor and Mon Desert (MTMD) sugar estate, where the 2,000 year-old dodo bones were found, now plans to use the information gleaned from the fossils to recreate the original environment of the dodo.

"There has been so much interest in the discovery that we have realized we need to do something to bring more awareness of the dodo," said Christian Foo Kune, MTMD's general manager.

"Our aim is to recreate the dodo's original habitat so that people can visit the area and rediscover how Mauritius was when the dodo was alive," Foo Kune said.

The plump bird which weighed about 20 kg (44 lbs) was discovered by Portuguese sailors in the late 16th century.

Unaccustomed to predators, it lacked fear of the human settlers who not only hunted the bird, but also destroyed its habitat through deforestation of ebony and tambalacoque trees.

They also introduced alien species such as goats and pigs which forced the dodo to compete for food and passing ships brought diseased rats to the island paradise -- all of which contributed to its extinction.


Experts say the well-preserved fossils included femurs of adult birds and chicks as well as a very rare part of the bird's beak, only a few of which exist in the world.

There were also bones of the giant Mauritius tortoise, which became extinct around the same time as the dodo, and hundreds of seeds of trees that no longer grow on the island.

Researchers hope analysis of tissues inside the bones will reveal what the bird and tortoise ate.

MTMD is planning nature trails, a museum and an information area to educate people on the tiny island's national symbol and use it to promote awareness about preserving the environment.

Researchers say the grave, which was only two meters deep and two meters wide, yielded around 19 kg of fossils.

They believe if the entire 10 acre marshland is excavated, they are likely to find hundreds more fossils.

"It is amazing that we didn't have to dig so far to find such results, so you can imagine what would happen if we explore the entire area," says Alan Grihault, who was part of the research team and author of a book on dodos.

Grihault says it remains uncertain how the dodos and tortoises in Mare-aux-Songes died, but initial ideas suggest it may have been the result of a widespread epidemic or a severe cyclone.

MTMD has asked the Dutch-Mauritian research team back to do a major excavation in June, but have decided to keep the exact site a secret to keep fortune-seekers away.