More than one special bird disappeared with the dodo

Skeleton of a dodo.Picture Naturalis

Exactly when the very last dodo in Mauritius died will forever remain a mystery. Like the exact color of its feathers and the sound of its call.

But much is known about the fate that befell this particular bird when it ended up in the hands of the Dutch. For example, from Volkert Evertz’s travelogue of his thirteen-year journey to India. It was 1662, writes Evertz, and the VOC ship Arnhem had hit a reef in the Indian Ocean. On a smaller boat, part of the crew managed to reach the island of Mauritius alive.

There, on the coast of a small island off the coast of Mauritius, they encountered a number of ‘doddaersen’, Evertz describes. The birds were ‘larger than geese, but unable to fly; instead of wings they had small flaps, but they could run very fast. As soon as we had a good one on one leg, the animal began to hoot loudly, and the other birds came over, and we were able to catch them too.’

This story is considered by many biologists to be the last surviving sighting of a dodo. But not all historians are convinced that Evertz actually experienced this himself. His story may be entirely or partially fabricated. A nice travelogue could sell well back then.

What is certain is that it may well be a truthful report, after all it is consistent with the reports of Dutchmen formerly in Mauritius. A Soeteboom described e.g. the story of skipper Willem van West-Zanen, who visited Mauritius in the early seventeenth century, mentions ‘bird hunting’, especially the tame ‘parrots… which were then beaten down with small stocxkens’.

The arrival of Dutch sailors meant the certain death of many special animal species. In South Africa, the capybara and the bluebuck have disappeared. And the quagga, a special subspecies of zebra that only had stripes on its head. The belly was reddish brown and the legs white. When European settlers failed to domesticate the quaggas, the hunt was opened. Some were caught and sent away. Therefore, the last quagga, a mare, was found dead on Sunday 12 August 1883 in her stable at the Artis zoo in Amsterdam.

While the last quagga roamed in Artis (1867-1883), the other quaggas in South Africa were captured or shot.  Statue Paul Louis Steenhuizen / Amsterdam city archive

While the last quagga roamed in Artis (1867-1883), the other quaggas in South Africa were captured or shot.Statue Paul Louis Steenhuizen / Amsterdam city archive

With the dodo, more than one extraordinary species disappeared: the death of the fat flightless bird symbolizes the extinction of an ecosystem. On the island of Mauritius, the evolution of animals and plants could take its own course for millennia. Thus the dodo is descended from pigeons whose offspring, in the absence of natural enemies, gradually lost their ability to fly. There was no need, they could enjoy fruit as they whizzed by. Numerous other Mauritian animal species – including flying foxes, giant tortoises, bird species and snakes – were found nowhere else like the dodo.

That isolation came to an end when, in 1598, a VOC fleet under the command of Wybrand van Warwyck encountered the island, which the sailors had already vaguely seen on a Portuguese map. Immediately upon arrival, the crew not only began clubbing and eating the near-tame dodos and other unique animals on the island, they also immediately began ‘improving’ the landscape. Banana trees and oranges were planted so that future VOC ships could benefit from them. Goats were released for the same purpose, and later pigs, monkeys and cows. Rats had probably come ashore a little earlier, when a Portuguese ship ran into a reef and sank.

Cape lion statue Naturalis

cape lionPicture Naturalis

The many pigs, who soon numbered the island, had their eggs in high demand. The island’s ecosystem could not withstand it, dozens of unique animal species became extinct. The Dodo in front. The fact that Volkert Evertz caught his dodos on a remote island is no coincidence, according to biologists. It was a place pigs had not yet reached.

The wonderful animals that European naturalists found on remote islands were of great importance to the theory of evolution. The British Charles Darwin studied several finches on the Galapagos Islands. They looked alike and descended from one common ancestor, he concluded. But through centuries of natural selection, several species evolved with beaks that suited their diet; thin pointed ones for insectivores and big strong ones for those species that eat large, hard seeds. His compatriot Alfred Russel Wallace came to similar insights after studying the various animal species of the Malay Archipelago.

The tragedy is that many of the ecosystems where evolution showed itself so beautifully were affected with the arrival of Europeans or sometimes even disappeared altogether.

Only two complete skeletons of the dodo have survived in the world. Around 1865, many loose bones were still found during the construction of a railway. Many of these have been sent to European collectors and museums and ‘wondered back’ into composite skeletons. One of these can be admired in the Naturalis Museum in Leiden. Like the stuffed last quagga.

Thanks to maritime researcher Menno Leenstra.

Turk Gualthérie van Weezel is an economics reporter at de Volkskrant. He took the initiative for the series Our colonial past in fifty objects. In 2007 he was involved in a similar project: De Bètacanon, about fifty things everyone should know about natural science.

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