Newly Discovered 17th Century Document Described Now-Extinct Mauritian Wildlife

Julian Hume/London Natural History Museum

When the Dutch colonized the island of Mauritius back in the 17th century, sailors brought with them a variety of pets and animals as carry-ons, like cats, rats and monkeys. Unadapted to these new predators, local animals would have been profoundly affected by their introduction. Dodos, for example, were wiped out within just 90 years of the arrival of the Dutch. Unfortunately, there exist few detailed descriptions of the Mauritian ecosystem prior to Dutch occupation, except of settlers jotting down which animals were easiest to catch.  

The native wildlife of Mauritius has therefore been somewhat of a mystery to biologists. But thanks to a newly discovered report, scientists have now been able to gain an intriguing insight into past life on the island, which has revealed that it was once home to some truly bizarre, now extinct creatures.

The recently translated and transcribed document was written between the years of 1666-1669 by soldier Johannes Pretorius, who was assigned the role of ziekentrooster, or comforter of the sick. According to the document’s analysis, which has been published in Historical Biology, what he produced is by far the most detailed record of the native animal life on the island discovered to date. Not only that, but he also described the effects of introduced animals, and how they kept now-extinct bird species in captivity.

Although the authors aren’t sure why he ended up creating this wildlife account, lead author Julian Hume told Live Science that his writing style suggests he may have been assigned the job of reporting whether the island would be suitable for permanent colonization, such as describing what animals they could potentially eat.

Alongside spending some time discussing the less exciting animals, such as cattle, deer, goats and pigs, Pretorius provided some fascinating descriptions of the native fauna. For example, he said that the now extinct Broad-billed, or raven, Parrot couldn’t fly, but we know that they were physiologically capable of flying, albeit poorly. It’s likely that this would have ultimately led to their downfall. He also commented on their aggressive nature, describing them as “very bad tempered.” These birds were so feisty, Hume told Live Science, that they would put up a good fight against introduced predators such as macaques and black rats. But their stubborn attitude didn’t end there, as Pretorius wrote that they would also refuse to eat meals when captive, and would rather die than live in captivity.

He also described the Mauritius blue pigeon, which he repeatedly attempted to rear but failed, as having a warty face. That’s interesting, says Hume, because all other closely related species also have warts on the face, yet contemporary illustrations and accounts depict or describe them as smooth-faced.

Another eloquent portrayal was of the Mauritius Red Rail, an also now-extinct flightless bird, which was apparently “unbelievably stupid.” According to Pretorius, it was so stupid that it would actually run towards people if they waved objects at them and made loud noises, and made no attempt to escape the wrath of their sticks. Easy dinner, then, but perhaps not the tastiest; “fatty and greasy,” he notes.

While we’ve showcased some of his amusing writings, this document is actually of great interest because it not only provides the first ecological details of some of the island’s now-extinct birds, it also describes the woes of attempting to survive and grow crops during the time of colonization. 

[Via Live Science and Historical Biology]

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