Death By Dry Spell on Prehistoric Mauritius
by Sid Perkins
An extended drought that struck Mauritius about 4200 years ago turned one of the island’s few sources of fresh water into a muddy death trap for dodos, giant tortoises, and other wildlife, a new study suggests. The excavations have yielded the fossils of small creatures—including insects, bats, and snails—as well as the pollen and seeds of plants that lived in the area, giving scientists a much more comprehensive look at the dodo’s ecosystem.
Mauritius, an island nation in the southwest Indian Ocean about 870 km east of Madagascar, is famed as the home of the dodo, a flightless, turkey-sized relative of pigeons and doves whose name has become synonymous with extinction. Even though dodos died out in the late 1600s, about 80 years after Europeans first colonized the islands, only a few descriptions of the bird exist, and those accounts are often contradictory, says Hanneke Meijer, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. From the late 19th century to the mid-20th century, several excavations on the island recovered large amounts of dodo remains, but at the time it wasn’t routine to collect information that could provide ecological context.
Since 2005, Meijer and her colleagues have re-excavated portions of a formerly swampy area known as Mare aux Songes (“Pond of Dreams”), one of the sites where many dodo remains were previously unearthed. Thousands of years ago, the area was a small lake—a freshwater oasis in an otherwise dry environment, Meijer says. Along with small fossils such as pollen, seeds, insects, and snails, the team’s recent diggings have brought to light a rich layer of fossils of bats, songbirds, dodos, and extinct giant tortoises…
(read more: Science NOW) (illustration: C. Julian Pender Hume)