An adult female specimen of the dodo's closest relative, the Rodrigues solitaire, as drawn in 1708 by French explorer François Leguat and thereby constituting the only illustration of this now-extinct flightless species prepared by someone who directly saw it in the living state (public domain)
The Indian Ocean's Mascarene archipelago – of which the islands of Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues are its largest, principal members – has acquired everlasting fame as the former home of one of the world's most celebrated and curious subfamilies of extinct birds. I refer, of course, to those flightless hook-billed pigeons of gargantuan stature and grotesque appearance known to zoologists as Raphinae but to everyone else as the dodos and solitaires.
Indeed, the dodo of Mauritius, Raphus cucullatus (the still commonly-applied but obsolete genus Didus being a junior synonym of Raphus), has become the modern-day epitome of obsolescence. "As dead as the dodo" is the ultimate phrase used to describe anything, avian or otherwise, that is irrevocably dated, destroyed, or deceased.
The most ironic aspect of the dodos' extinction is that at one time there was every opportunity to save them. Quite a number of dodos were brought back to Europe, and unlike so many of the tropics' much more delicate avifauna they appeared to be physiologically robust.
Indeed, as David Day pertinently remarked in The Doomsday Book of Animals (1981), any birds that could survive the rough sea voyages of the 17th Century had to be tough. (There is even a confirmed record of a living dodo that reached the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1647, which is the last recorded dodo specimen in captivity.)
Sir John Tenniel's famous illustration of Alice with the Dodo and other caucus race competitors, from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865); modern, zoological reconstructions of the dodo favour a sleeker, less plump appearance for it (public domain)
Furthermore, some apparently survived for a number of years in their new European homes. If serious attempts had been made to save them by captive breeding, the existence of these Alice-in-Wonderland birds within today's parklands and gardens may well have been a firm reality instead of an intangible romantic fantasy. Yet no such attempt was made.
Instead, the Mauritius dodo is generally believed to have died out in or around 1681. Moreover, this species' Mascarene relative - the still-sizeable but rather more streamlined solitaire of Rodrigues, Pezophaps solitaria - apparently followed it into oblivion by the latter part of the 18th Century.
A third once-recognised species, the Réunion solitaire Raphus solitarius, which died out at much the same time as its Rodrigues namesake, is nowadays deemed to have been a species of ibis, not a dodo or solitaire at all, and has been reclassified accordingly.
Moreover, a fourth erstwhile species, Réunion's supposed white dodo Victoriornis imperialis, has been thoroughly traduced and entirely discredited taxonomically. I plan to document these two discounted forms in a future ShukerNature article.
Life-sized models of the Réunion white dodo (confusingly labelled alternatively as the solitaire, which on Réunion was a separate but equally non-existent raphine species) and the Mauritius dodo at Tring Natural History Museum (© Dr Karl Shuker)
Even so, is it possible that some raphine representatives survived beyond these officially-recognized dates of extinction, persisting instead into much more recent times? Let us consider the intriguing if highly-convoluted case of the Nazareth dodo.
Although Mauritius, Réunion, and Rodrigues are without doubt the largest and best known Mascarene islands, they are not the only ones contained within this particular Indian Ocean archipelago. To the north of its major trio lie many far smaller and much less familiar islets and banks. Indeed, most of these have never been explored or even inhabited by humans. Yet at least one could be of considerable significance to the possibility of recent dodo survival.
In 1638, French explorer François Cauche led an expedition to Mauritius and later wrote a detailed account of his adventures. In it, he referred to "oiseaux de Nazaret" ('birds of Nazareth') in relation to dodos. Consequently, several subsequent books included mention of a new species - Didus nazarenus – the Nazareth dodo. But where was Nazareth? What exactly did it mean? Was it the name of some mysterious island? Or could it have been merely a mistranslation of some descriptive phrase used in connection with ordinary dodos? It was all most bewildering.
In his book The Lungfish and the Unicorn (1941), republished in expanded form as The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn in 1948, Willy Ley, a German-born scientist and science writer much interested in cryptozoology (or what he quaintly referred to as 'romantic zoology'), re-examined the confusing case of the Nazareth dodo. He favoured the last-mentioned explanation as the most likely solution.
My copy of Willy Ley's book The Lungfish, the Dodo and the Unicorn (© Dr Karl Shuker/Viking Press)
The first European explorers of Mauritius were Dutch, and these had referred to the dodos as "Walghvogel" ('nauseating birds'), on account of their less-than-tasty flesh. Ley observed that the translation of this into French was "oiseaux de nausée", which sounds similar to "oiseaux de Nazaret".
Added to this is the fact that Ley could find no evidence (at first) for the existence of a Nazareth Island - except for a few ancient maps carrying the name, and he dismissed its presence on these maps as nothing more than a synonym for one of the major Mascarene islands. However, the position of 'Nazareth Island' as marked on these did not correspond with the known location of any of the major Mascarenes - a puzzling inconsistency that Ley explained away as cartographical inaccuracy.
And so, according to Ley, Cauche had mistaken "oiseaux de nausée" for "oiseaux de Nazaret", with Nazareth being nothing more than an alternative name for one of the three principal Mascarenes. All of this seemed eminently plausible - until, as he would reveal in his later book Exotic Zoology (1959), Ley discovered that a 'Nazareth Island' totally separate from these latter islands really did exist.
It turned out that this was the name that early Portuguese sailors had given to a tiny islet called the Île Tromelin. Of 54° 25' E longitude and 15° 51' S latitude, this is a remote diminutive island (less than three miles long) lying approximately 375 miles northwest of Mauritius, 250 miles east of Madagascar, and sited within the Mascarene Basin. Even more stimulating than his identification of Tromelin as the mysterious 'Nazareth Island', however, was Ley's discovery that the 19th-Century Dutch zoologist and dodo expert Dr Anthonie Cornelius Oudemans (who was also a diligent if derided chronicler of sea serpent reports – click here) had suggested that Tromelin may be worth exploring in search of fossil (and even living) dodos!
Willy Ley (public domain)
As he noted in a full report in his book Searching For Hidden Animals (1980), veteran cryptozoologist and university-based biochemist Prof. Roy Mackal had followed up the history of the Nazareth dodos and Ley's corresponding researches very closely. Consequently, intrigued by the zoological potential ascribed to Tromelin by Oudemans, Prof. Mackal set out to learn more about this mysterious islet.
He discovered from a nautical chart depicting the isle (and produced from a Madagascan survey of the area carried out in 1959) that its only links with humanity were its ownership by France and its possession of a small airstrip plus a meteorological station (apparently of automatic type). Nothing seemed to be known of its wildlife.
Thanks to the vast information resources that have been made readily available via the internet in the decades that have passed since Mackal's book was published, conversely, this latter statement is no longer true.
As confirmed by a factsheet devoted to Tromelin produced and updated by BirdLife International (click here to access it), we now know that this tiny isle, currently an unmanned nature reserve but with four permanent staff in attendance at the meteorological station, is home to two significant populations of seabird – the masked booby Sula dactylatra and the red-footed booby S. sula. It is also used for roosting purposes by frigate birds (two different species of which formerly bred here), but according to the factsheet there are no resident land birds. There are, however, brown rats, which have reached the isle via ships, and which have to be poisoned periodically in order to keep their numbers down.
Roelant Savery's beautiful painting 'Landscape with Birds', produced in 1628, which includes among its diverse avian array a dodo, standing just in front of a cassowary and to the immediate left of a heron (public domain)
Coupling the existence here of rats (infamous on certain other islands for their baneful effects upon flightless birds) with the no-doubt-watchful, attentive presence of the meteorological station's staff, it would seem unlikely, therefore, that any relatively large and flightless species of bird, let alone anything as potentially distinctive as a dodo relative, could survive here undetected.
Many other comparably tiny and insignificant islets exist in this area, however, most of which remain scientifically unexplored or unnoticed. As Mackal noted, this is no doubt due at least in part to the existence of treacherous reefs and shoals that would make any attempt at landing on these islands hazardous in the extreme.
Almost 40 such islands, all of which are less than half a square mile in area, make up the Cargados Carajos Shoals (aka Saint Brandon), which are primarily fishing stations. Then there are the two Agaléga Islands, connected by a sandbar and covered with coconut palms, and again used for fishing. But what of their wildlife? Seabirds and turtles constitute the most familiar inhabitants of the Cargados Carajos Shoals, whereas the Agaléga Islands are famed for their very own subspecies of day gecko, Phelsuma borbonica agalegae, found nowhere else – but might there be other, more elusive species here too, still evading scientific detection? Having said that, the invasion of some of these islands by rats, rabbits, and chickens doesn't bode well for any such species. Then again...
Relative to the Cargados Shoals, Mackal reported that as many as a dozen of these islands may house zoological and botanical surprises. Could these include living relatives of the dodo, unknown to the zoological world? It seems very unlikely, but let us hope, nevertheless, that other scientists will follow Mackal's lead, and investigate in detail some of the major Mascarenes' minor neighbours. Who knows for certain what the zoological rewards may be?