June 24, 2006

Scientists Unearth Key to Dodo’s Past

By Tim Cocks

MARE-AUX-SONGES, Mauritius -- Scientists in Mauritius have said they have unearthed a wealth of dodo bones and other remains which could contain clues about how the giant bird became extinct.

Most theories blame early settlers who found the plump flightless bird on the Indian Ocean island in the 16th century and hunted it relentlessly.

A group of researchers this month excavated a site on a Mauritian sugar estate, where a layer of dodo bones were found last October.

"It's a wonderful collection," Dr Julian Hume, a scientist on the Dodo Research Program, told journalists at an excavation site in southern Mauritius late on Friday.

"The chances of a single (intact) bone being preserved is remarkable event. And here we have a whole collection of them."

Hume said 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 there.

Experts say the fossils will enable them to reconstruct the world of the dodo in the 10,000 years before humans discovered it.

Hume said although dodo bones had been found in Mauritius before, they were plucked out in a haphazard way, paying no attention to adjacent dodo fossils or other clues about the environment in which it lived.

"This is much more significant than previous finds. For once we have all the pieces to put back together," Hume told Reuters, as a team of scientists behind him sieved through trays of mud in search of more relics.

"Before, all we had were (isolated) bones and evidence from early Dutch explorers," he said. "Now we have a context."

The next stage in the project will be to classify all the fossils to determine which belongs to what animal or plant.

"From this, we should be able to reconstruct the kind of environment that was around before the advent of man," Mauritian paleontologist, Dr Anwar Janoo, said.

Portuguese sailors discovered Mauritius in the 16th century, and it was colonized by Dutch settlers the following century, which is when the dodo died out.

Unaccustomed to predators, the dodo lacked fear of the human settlers who hunted it and destroyed the forests that provided its habitat. Passing ships also brought rats, which ate the birds eggs located in nests on the ground.