Along with its unique birds, Mauritius was also home to many endemic reptile species. In the absence of terrestrial mammals giant tortoises were the largest herbivores on the island, and various geckos, skinks, and snakes helped to fill out the rest of the vertebrate ecosystem.
Leiolopisma mauritiana was a very large skink, one of the biggest ever known to have existed with a total length of around 80cm (2′7″). Its ancestors originated in Australasia, over 5600km away (~3500 miles) at least 3-4 million years ago – and they must have endured a particularly long ocean rafting journey without any island hopping stops, since none of the other islands along that route seem to have ever had populations of similar skinks.
It probably lived in rocky areas, possibly also being capable of digging burrows, and would have eaten an omnivorous diet of seeds, fruits, invertebrates, and smaller lizards and birds.
By the early 1600s it was already extinct, very soon after the arrival of humans, probably due to predation from invasive mammals like rats. However, its half-sized close relative Leiolopisma telfairii does still survive on rat-free Round Island a short distance to the north of Mauritius, and recent conservation efforts have been rebuilding its population and setting up new colonies on other nearby small islands.
The dodo wasn’t the only unique bird to evolve on Mauritius. While about eight other endemic bird species still survive today, there were at least twice that many before the arrival of humans in the late 1500s – including the broad-billed parrot Lophopsittacus mauritianus.
Also referred to as the “Indian raven” in historical accounts, it was a fairly large bird measuring between 45 and 65cm in length (1′6″-2′1″). Unusually for a parrot it had a high degree of sexual dimorphism, with males being significantly bigger than females.
Many images depict it as entirely black or blue-grey, but this seems to be based on a misinterpretation. More recent translations of old Dutch descriptions suggest it was actually much more colorful, with a red beak, blue head, and reddish body.
It had a proportionally big head and a flattened skull, and seems to have had a highly specialized diet, using its its large strong beak to crack open hard seeds and nuts like modern hyacinth macaws.
It was near-flightless, capable of taking to the air only with difficulty, and was said to be “bad-tempered”. Attempts to keep individuals in captivity failed, the birds refusing to eat, and while the wild population had apparently learned to be wary of humans by the late 1660s by that point it was already too late. Much like the dodos they lived alongside, a combination of deforestation, hunting, and predation by invasive mammal species sent them into extinction by the 1680s.
Out of all the extinct island species we’ll be covering in this theme, there’s probably none more famous than the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) – a large flightless pigeon about 1m tall (3′3″).
The island of Mauritius was formed from a volcanic hotspot in the Indian Ocean about 10-7 million years ago, in a location roughly 1000km east of Madagascar (~620 miles). The dodo’s smaller flying ancestors must have arrived there sometime after that point via island-hopping from Southeast Asia – the area where its closest living relative the Nicobar pigeon is still found today – and finding themselves in an ecosystem completely lacking terrestrial mammals they quickly evolved to fill a large herbivore niche.
Although frequently depicted as blue-grey, the dodo’s actual life appearance is unknown for certain. No complete preserved specimens have survived into the present day, and contemporary accounts and drawings are somewhat inconsistent – but common elements among them suggest it was more of an earthy brown, with cream-colored primary feathers, yellow legs, a naked pale face, and a green-and-yellow streaked beak. The large white ostrich-like tail plumes shown in many images have also probably been highly exaggerated, since older images depict the dodo with only a tiny tufted tail at best.
Its appearance probably also varied based on the time of year, molting its feathers at the end of summer and being fattest during the breeding season in early spring.
And despite often being stereotyped as a slow dim-witted animal, the proportions of the dodo’s leg bones suggest it was actually quite fast and agile. Its brain-to-body size ratio was also typical compared to other pigeons – which are known to be highly intelligent birds – and it had a well-developed sense of smell.
Sadly this fascinating bird disappeared within only a century of being discovered by humans in the late 1500s. Its “island tameness” due to its lack of natural predators made it easy prey, its forest habitat was rapidly destroyed, and introduced mammal species (such as dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and macaques) competed for its food sources and ate its eggs and young – pressures that its population simply couldn’t hope to recover from all at one.
Its loss wasn’t even properly recognized until much later in the 1800s, but since then it has ironically become immortalized as a icon of human-caused extinction.