Mauritius’s relative isolation led to the development of a number of unusual endemic plants and animals, including the dodo, whose unmistakeable image has become synonymous with the island. The 1m-tall flightless bird belonged to the pigeon family, and is thought to have been named by Portuguese sailors in 1507 after the sound it made as it cooed. Eyewitness accounts described the waddling birds as lumpish and flightless, grey or grey-brown in colour, with black quills for wings and a tail of coloured plumes. Contrary to popular myth the dodo wasn’t plump (these accounts may have been based on birds transported to Europe in a confined space and fed on ships’ biscuits) – they could run fast.

It is thought that the dodo’s flightlessness developed over millions of years of evolution. With no predators before man arrived, it was able to feed on fruits, berries, leaves and bulbous roots found on or near the ground. But when the Dutch occupied Mauritius in 1638, its fate changed forever. Ebony forests were chopped down and replaced with imported crops such as sugar cane and tobacco, and the fearless dodo was an easy target, clubbed to death by hunters despite the fact that the meat was reported to be nauseating. The dodo’s nests, built about 40cm above the ground and with a single egg, were also vulnerable to destruction by pigs, and the rats and monkeys which escaped from ships. By the end of the seventeenth century, less than a hundred years after man arrived, the dodo was extinct. It wasn’t until 1865 that the first bones were found in the marsh of Mare Aux Songes, proving that the dodo was not just a legend.

Today, the phrase “dead as a dodo” might abound, but as Mauritius’s national emblem, the dodo is everywhere, emblazoned on everything from teacups to T-shirts. You can find out more in the Dodo Gallery in Port Louis’ Natural History Museum.

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