The one place where dodos can be found


Source: BBC

By Colin Barras

It is the last bastion of the dodo – the only place on Earth where fossils of the iconic extinct bird are known to exist.

The 0.5-sq-km Mare aux Songes fossil site is a unique portal into the island of Mauritius’s remote past before humans arrived. It has the potential to become one of the most famous fossil localities in the world.

And soon you might be able to view it from a hotel window.

Researchers and local campaigners are concerned that if planned building projects around the fossil site go ahead, their impact could irreversibly spoil the area and jeopardise any future bid to have the site’s natural heritage recognised internationally.

Despite its fame, the dodo has suffered a shameful fate since its extinction 350 years ago. Several specimens were collected on Mauritius before the bird disappeared – but by the early 19th Century not a single complete skeleton survived.

In 2005, almost miraculously, the Mare aux Songes was rediscovered

This made the discovery of the Mare aux Songes in 1865 all the more important. In this unassuming swamp, researchers uncovered numerous fossilised dodo bones, enough to cobble together a complete dodo skeleton.

Although that skeleton contains bones from several individual birds, it still gave Victorian scientists their best opportunity to understand the anatomy of the lost species.

But by the mid-20th Century, the Mare aux Songes had itself been lost. The swamp is a breeding ground for mosquitoes, so it was filled with rubble during a malaria epidemic. No one thought to note its exact location beforehand.

The Mare aux Songes in 2005 (Credit: Kenneth Rijsdijk)

The Mare aux Songes in 2005 (Credit: Kenneth Rijsdijk)

“Many people thought it was [subsequently] paved over by the runways of the nearby Mauritian airport,” says Leon Claessens at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.

The Mare aux Songes was a beautiful oasis with a shallow lake back then

But in 2005, almost miraculously, the Mare aux Songes was rediscovered. The diligent work of dodo enthusiasts established the site’s location, just beyond the airport’s perimeter.

Kenneth Rijsdijk of the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and his colleagues have since begun studying the site again. Their work emphasises just how important the Mare aux Songes is.

Alongside the dodo bones, Rijsdijk and his colleagues foundskeletal remains from a diverse array of animals. The famous flightless birds shared the landscape with at least two types of giant tortoise, fruit bats, flamingos, lizards, parrots and harriers, to name but a few species.

“The Mare aux Songes was a beautiful oasis with a shallow lake back then, where thousands of animals came to drink fresh and clean water,” says Rijsdijk.

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