Avian paleontologist (and dodo-fan) Julian Hume, long-time researcher of (Mauritian) fossil birds, was a speaker at this week’s workshop in Mauritius. He discussed the natural history of the Mascarenes (Mauritius, Reunion, Rodrigues). Please find his guest contribution below.
Well, here I am sat in the old sugar estate of Brittania reminiscing about how many times I have been to Mauritius. I actually don’t really know but I have come to know the place pretty well. Furthermore, being a scientist and an artist, Mauritius always offers a challenge for both of my disciplines.
This trip has offered something new for me too, a journey back in time to recreate the original forest of the Mare aux Songes fossil locality, which is probably representative of the dry, coastal side of the island. Before my trip to the island, I finished a mural depicting the trees and shrubs that once occurred at the site, all based on the work of my Dutch colleagues, Erik de Boer and Tamara Vernimmen; the guys have done an amazing job using pollen and wood analysis to understand the composition of the original flora. They commissioned me to paint the mural as seen through the eyes of a botanist, so now, as a bird palaeontologist, I can see the Mare aux Songes in a different light.
The painting shows the marsh and surrounding forest 4200 years ago during a global drought event, and shows interactions between some animals and plants. The extinct Mauritius Lesser Fruit Bat Pteropus subniger (far left) gorges on the fruits of a fig, while fig wasps lay inject their eggs into the flesh providing a juicy meal for the larvae. On the right a Phelsuma ornata Day Gecko licks pollen from an ebony flower, and on the trunk on the left, a Guenther’s Gecko Phelsuma guentheri, now only found on Round Island of the north coast, remains motionless on a trunk of Pandanus. I could not resist adding some old friends, so I included a Dodo Raphus cucullatus and Mauritian Giant Tortoise Cylindraspis inepta feeding on fallen Tambalacoque fruit. What a sight this must have been when the first people landed on Mauritius, and what a great pity that it was to become irretrievably destroyed in such a short time afterwards. It is the work of Erik and Tamara (with a tiny sprinkling from me) that really give us an insight into a world now lost forever.
Look here for more of Julian’s work.