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Dodos and Solitaires

This classic Marginalia on the dodo's disappearance was first published in 1954

G. Evelyn Hutchinson

Editors’ Note: The renowned ecologist G. Evelyn Hutchinson was the first scholar to pen Marginalia in American Scientist, beginning in 1942. This entry is from his last year as Marginalist, 1954. The controversy he describes has only been resolved within the past decade, and we are not about to spoil the punch line before the article. If, however, you visit the "other related links" box to the bottom right of the page—after reading the Yale professor’s analysis, please—you can find a selection of links to material about the inevitable reach of genetic analysis to solve the dilemma.

The progress of Man in civilization, no less than his numerical increase, continually extends the geographical domain of Art by trenching on the territories of Nature, and hence the Zoologist or Botanist of future ages will have a much narrower field for his researches than that which we enjoy at present. It is, therefore, the duty of the naturalist to preserve to the stores of Science the knowledge of these extinct or expiring organisms, when he is unable to preserve their lives; so that our acquaintance with the marvels of Animal and Vegetable existence may suffer no detriment by the losses which the organic creation seems destined to sustain.

Thus wrote Strickland in the introduction to his classical memoir [1] on the dodo, published in 1848. It is both extraordinary and tragic how little we still know about animals which have become far rarer than they were at the time Strickland wrote. No satisfactory treatment of L’éléphant et ses amours, let alone a stately ten-volume Grundriss der Elefantenlehre appear, in spite of the popular story, yet to exist. Of the rhinoceroses, of which perhaps not more than a few thousand specimens of the commonest species are now living, we know even less. The little that we do know is, however, abundantly worth knowing. Of the dodo we cannot now learn much that is new; what is ascertainable will be discussed in the following pages.

The Dodo and the Solitaire

No animals that have ever lived seem to have balanced more precariously on the boundaries of the real and the imaginary than the flightless birds which are placed scientifically in the family Raphidae. Now, unfortunately, no one can observe their behavior. They lived on the islands of the Mascarene group, Reunion, Mauritius, and Rodriguez. The dodo of Mauritius, as everybody knows, has also been an inhabitant of Wonderland since 1865, the very year in which the best skeletal remains of the bird were discovered and sent to Europe. The solitaire never successfully left its home in Rodriguez, though there is a suspicion that before its demise it adopted some of the manners of the court of Louis XIV. The birds from Reunion, without bones to represent them, are solely known from the reports of a few travelers and from a number of problematic pictures and may, in part, be fabulous.

The existing information about these strange creatures has recently been summarized by the late Viscount Hachisuka, who died a few days before his work appeared [2]. His book provides an admirable excuse for an excursion into one of the oddest regions of natural history.

The three islands which were the homes of the birds under consideration lie west of southern Madagascar, as shown in Figure 1. They were probably known to the Arabs but were first sighted by European navigators early in the sixteenth century. All were well forested, lacked land mammals other than bats, and supported a number of birds, mostly now extinct, as well as giant tortoises. Of the last named, three species are supposed to have lived on Rodriguez and a considerable number, perhaps not all contemporary, have been described from subfossil or fossil material from Mauritius. Hogs, goats, and chickens were liberated on Mauritius in the sixteenth century, but the island remained uninhabited until 1638 when the Dutch established a settlement. Reunion was apparently visited for timber early in the seventeenth century and was inhabited sporadically after 1649. Rodriguez was supposedly first colonized in 1691 by a small group of Huguenots who attempted to establish a settlement.

2012-03ClassicMargHutchinson.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageThough no skin of the Dodo still exists—Oxford University having destroyed the only specimen as too moth eaten in 1755—the Mauritius species, Raphus cucullatus Linnaeus, is very well known. About twenty-five illustrations made during the seventeenth century are in existence; these seem mostly to have been executed from captive birds brought to Europe. Some of these pictures, notably by Roelandt Savory, are skillful and detailed oil paintings and provide a great deal of information as to the appearance of the bird. About a dozen complete skeletons and many isolated bones have been recovered from Mauritius in the past hundred years. Most of the illustrations indicate an extremely clumsy, fat, usually dark gray or blackish bird with a huge beak, minute functionless wings, and short plumelike tail. It has been supposed that the fatter specimens with less conspicuous tails, darker plumage, and brown rather than golden irides are females, though no contemporary observer noted any sexual dimorphism. Some drawings show a curiously gaunt and perhaps featherless bird. Oudemans supposes that this appearance was assumed seasonally, presumably after breeding. Hachisuka thinks that part of the sheath of the beak was also shed at the moult. The contemporary accounts indicate that the bird lived in forests, fed on fallen fruits of some sort, and laid one white egg about 10 cm long in a nest on the ground.

The raphid bird of Rodriguez, known generally today as the Solitaire, or scientifically Pezophaps solitaria (Gmelin), is in some ways the best known of the group, because it was the only species that came under the eye of anyone who was really interested in observing it. Unfortunately, this gentleman, M. François Leguat, who went to Rodriguez in 1691 at the head of the Huguenot settlers, was by his own admission an inexpert draughtsman and so only published one detailed delineation of the bird from life. This is the whole of the iconographic evidence for its appearance, but the general form and some details of his figure have been confirmed by a great quantity of skeletal material recovered during the last century. There is, however, a special complication to be faced in considering the solitaire, not present in the case of the birds of the other islands. It has been seriously proposed that, unlike his bird, Leguat himself is a mythical creation.

In the Voyage et avantures de François Leguat & de ses Compagnons en deux isles désertes des Indes Orientales [3] the solitaire is described as taller than a turkey with similar feet and beak, though the latter was a little more hooked. The male is described as grayish and brown, the female as either blonde or brown; one may perhaps suspect an age difference here. The wings were too small for flight; in the account of the male it is said that there was a bony mass under the feathers as big as a musket ball, used in defense. The female had “une espèce de bandeau comme un bandeau de veuves en haut du bec qui est de couleur tanée.” It is thus clear from the original, though not from contemporary translations, that the beak was tan-colored. The band-like structure is clearly dark and conspicuous in Leguat’s figure. The most striking feature of the female, however, was that at the base of the neck there were two elevations, with whiter feathers than the rest, “qui représente merveilleusement un beau sein de femme.” These structures, which must have put Leguat in mind of some of the ladies he had seen dressed in the fashions of late seventeenth century France, evidently contributed to his idea that “La femelle est d’une beauté admirable,” though the blonde plumage was doubtless most attractive. Of such birds walking to meet him with so proud a display he writes “on ne peut s’empêcher de les admirer & de les aimer, de sorte que souvent leur bonne mine leur a sauvé la vie.” This statement from the first settler on an uninhabited island, in the presence of an edible bird—”le goût en est excellent sur tout quand ils sont jeunes”—is a tribute to the elegance of the bird and the sensitivity of the observer.

Leguat continues with an account of the territorial behavior of these birds. The breeding territory had a radius of about two hundred yards, and was defended during incubation and the long period of several months while the young bird was helpless. Leguat says that males drove off intruding males and females intruding females; this is reasonable, but it is less likely that the male called the female when he saw an intruding female and vice versa, as Leguat believed that he had observed several times. The wing is said to have been rotated, making a noise like a rattle when the birds were calling. This was presumably a territorial warning. The nest consisted of a heap of palm leaves; a single egg, bigger than that of a goose, was laid; both sexes incubated. Except for what is said about the one sex calling its mate to drive off an intruder of the opposite sex, this is all reasonable, though in Leguat’s time it would have seemed less reasonable than it does to us today. Leguat is clearly one of the founders of our knowledge of territoriality in animals. The single egg and the long period required to rear the young are reasonable in view of the anatomical evidence that these birds were derived from pigeons.

His description of the end of the rearing of the young, and of the formation of mated pairs, which he says were stable during life, is much odder. Some days after the young left the nest, a company of thirty or forty brings another young bird to it, and, the parents joining the band, the two young birds are led off to an unoccupied territory and left there by the adults. He refers to this as a “marriage,” and goes on to moralize on the simple fidelity of these birds in a state of nature without laws, lawyers, or priests. This observation of the marriage is apparently unique in avian ethology; Leguat’s credibility is therefore a matter of considerable interest.

Leguat’s book has had a most curious history. Written in French, it was first published in England in 1708. A number of editions in French, English, and Dutch followed in the same year and the work evidently caused considerable excitement. Right from the beginning doubts as to the authenticity of the work were raised, and though an obituary notice exists, no other independent evidence of Leguat’s reality was known until fairly recently. The book was for long the only important source for the existence and nature of the Rodriguez solitaire and was accepted as such by Strickland, though by 1848 bones of the solitaire had already been discovered. When later complete skeletons of Pezophaps became known, Leguat’s remarks about the “petite masse ronde comme une balle de mousquet” under the wing feathers received confirmation. In view of this skeletal verification, Alfred Newton and others felt that the work had been vindicated and a reprint was published by the Hakluyt Society in 1891. Practically nothing has been added to our knowledge of the solitaire since then, though the osteological evidence on the one hand and Leguat’s account on the other have been usually considered as providing a fairly good understanding of the bird.

In a series of works in the nineteen -wenties an American scholar, G. Atkinson [4], undertook to demolish the whole of Leguat’s work, claiming that it was a novel written by F. M. Misson. In Atkinson’s attack on Leguat, the unhappy solitaire was dealt many undeserved blows.

Atkinson claimed that “Leguat,” that is, Misson, had invented the solitaire, using as his sources the two brief descriptions by Carré and DuBois of a bird of the same name in Reunion, a description of the “oiseau de Nazareth,” apparently a dodo, seen on Mauritius by Cauche, other notes on Mascarene birds given by Cauche and DuQuesne, and finally, for the peculiar skeletal features of the wing, some experience with the skeletons of swans and other European species. The remark, for instance, about the bandeau on the tan-colored beak is supposedly derived from Cauche—”Leur perdris ont le bec rouge, il y en a de tannées.” The practiced philologist will doubtless see the inevitability of the comparison; the present writer does not. To put the solitaire together in a convincing and, in part, osteologically confirmed form, would be a precognitive feat placing Leguat as the most successful imaginative palaeontologist who has ever existed. Since Aktinson wrote, the researches of Vivielle and Dehérain have shown that there is independent evidence for the reality of Leguat’s voyage in the maritime archives of Texel, Cape Town, and Mauritius and in some contemporary Dutch naval correspondence; Mortensen has shown that some of Aktinson’s geographical and biological criticisms are invalid. Nevertheless, in spite of all this, there is still a tendency to cast doubt on Leguat’s testimony. Hachisuka’s book reviews, if a little unsystematically, the whole problem, and comes out strongly in Leguat’s favor. The territorial behavior recorded, which Atkinson dismisses most unceremoniously, seems to the present writer greatly to strengthen the case for Leguat’s reliability, since there were practically no sources available as hints of such behavior in 1708. Perhaps the marriage of the solitaires also really occurred.

The identity of the bird on Reunion raises a problem which has still not been solved. There are four contemporary descriptions. Tatton, who was in Reunion in 1613, writes of “a great fowl of the bigness of a Turkie, very fat, and so short winged that they cannot flie, beeing white and in a manner tame.” Bontekoe was in the island in 1618 and observed “eenige dod-eersen” unable to fly and very fat. Carré in 1668 writes of “celuy que les habitans ont nomm? l’Oiseau Solitaire, parce qu’effectivement il aime la solitude … il ne ressem bleriot pas mal un Coq d’Inde, s’il n’avoit point les jambes plus hautes. La beauté de son plumage fait plaisir à voir. C’est une couleur changeante qui tire sur le jaune. La chair en est exquise.…”

In the next year Sieur D. B. (DuBois) wrote, “Solitaires: ces oiseaux sont nommés ainsi, parce qu’ils vont toujours seuls. Ils sont gros comme une grosse Oye, et ont le plumage blanc, noir a l’extremité des ailes et de la queue. A la queue il y a des plumes approchantes de celles d’Autruche, ils ont le col long, et le bec fait comme celui de Bécasses, mais plus gros, les jambes et pieds comme poulets d’Inde. Cet oiseau se prend à la course, ne volant que bien peu.”

Strickland [5], who collated these accounts for the first time, dismissed Bontekoe’s use of the term “dod-eerse,” the ordinary Dutch for dodo, as a confusion with the Mauritius bird, due perhaps to muddled memory caused by Bontekoe’s ship being blown up and he alone surviving, shortly after visiting Reunion. Strickland concludes that the three other accounts refer to a yellow or whitish solitaire-like bird with a longer beak than the Reunion bird.

It is very curious that Carré’s and DuBois’ accounts, which have really confused the issue if only a single species was present, both begin in a way reminiscent of the standard opening of any chapter in a mediaeval bestiary. One can easily imagine a fabulous species being introduced with the words Avis solitaria vocatur guia solitaria est.…

Some years after Strickland wrote, four very definite paintings of white dodos, by Pieter Withoos and by Pieter Holsteyn, Sr., were identified in various European collections. It became evident that a dodo with whitish plumage, very decomposed, yellowish wings and plumose tail, actually existed. It was clearly distinct from the Mauritius dodo in its color and less hooked bill, and presumably could only have come from Reunion. Some authorities, notably Rothschild, have therefore suspected the presence of two white forms on Reunion, one dodo-like, the other solitaire-like. Others, notably Oudemans, suppose only one species to have existed, and this a white dodo. Oudemans, however, thought that the male was deeper colored and was depicted in certain paintings that are now referred by Hachisuka to young Mauritius dodos. During the present century, at least three good representations have turned up that appear to Hachisuka to represent a solitaire-like bird, either white or brown, with a very large head and conical beak. These he considers to be Reunion solitaires, and, perhaps, overgeneralizing Leguat’s rather specialized concept of feminine beauty, he depicts in his reconstruction the female as the more beautiful white bird, largely from a water-color drawing discovered by Killermann in Vienna. It is at first sight hard to assimilate this drawing to a dodo, but if the white dodo lost weight and the anterior sheath of its beak during the moulting season, such an identity might be possible [6]. The decomposed wing of the Vienna drawing is very like that of the paintings of white dodos, and it seems inconceivable that two raphid birds, whitish, with the same wings, should have evolved in parallel on the same island. Only skeletal evidence can now solve the problem, and unfortunately the volcanic caves on the island have not yielded bones. The matter is of considerable general interest in view of the difficulties that might arise in explaining the origin of two sympatric raphid birds on the same island. These difficulties are, moreover, presented in a more acute form by the probable former presence of three species of giant tortoise on Rodriguez and of even more on Mauritius. A re-examination of the available material of these animals using modern statistical methods might be interesting. Parenthetically, it may be mentioned that Peter Mundy in the seventeenth century wrote of the wingless birds of the Mascarenes and of a wingless rail that he, but no one else, observed on Ascension Island—”A question may bee Demaunded how they should bee here and not elsewhere, beeing soe Farre From other land and can neither Fly nor Swymme; whether by mixture off kindes producing straunge and monstrous Formes, or the nature off the Climate, ayre and earth in alltring the First Shapes in long time, or how” [7] When another English traveler asked a like question of himself off the Galapagos Islands nearly two centuries later the answer proved to change the ideas of the whole world.

Literature Cited

  • 1. Strickland, H. E., and Melville, A. G. The dodo and its kindred, or the history, affinities and osteology of the dodo, solitaire and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. London, 1848. 141 pp. The copy examined in the Yale University Library contains an inscription ‘To Professor Silliman with the kind regards of the authors” and a pencil note below “Rec’d Octob 23—1848. The first part read and the second looked through within 8 days”—Beneath this is the signature in ink of James W. Dana, doubtless added later.
  • 2. Hachisuka, Masauji. The dodo and kindred birds or the extinct birds of the Mascarene Islands. London, H. F. and G. Witherby, Ltd., 1953. 250 pp. The book is primarily a compilation, and at times somewhat naive; its value to the non-specialist may, however, be judged from the fact that although one of the largest libraries in the New World is available to the writer, he had to rely on Hachisuka for the content of the works of Oudemans, Mortensen, Vivielle, and Dehérain, and Killerman in preparing the above account.
  • 3. Voyage et avantures de François Leguat. Tome 1, 164 pp.; Tome 2, 180 pp. and index. David Mortier, Marchand Libraire, à Londres, MDC CVIT. The subsequently published English translation is inaccurate and misleading.
  • 4. Atkinson, G. The extraordinary voyage in French literature from 1700 to 1720. Lib. Ancienne Honoré Champion, Paris, 1922. 147 pp.
  • 5. These extracts are all taken from Strickland. The scientific name of the birds of Reunion raises difficulties. De Selys Longchamp named the solitaire of Reunion, on the basis of Carré and DuBois, Apterornis solitaria. The generic name is preoccupied, but if a single species, a white dodo, existed on the island it becomes Raphus solitarius (DeSelys Longchamp) or Ornithaptera solitaria if generic distinction is desired. If two birds are involved, the last is the name for the solitaire; Hachisuka has supplied Victoriornis imperialis Hachisuka for the white dodo.
  • 6. Miss Martha M. Dimock, in copying the pictures here reproduced, came to the conclusion that the two left-hand paler birds might well be of the same species. This sort of testimony is of some interest in default of direct observation, because in moving the hand in accordance with the old drawing one probably gets nearer to the original bird than in any other way now possible.
  • 7. Peter Mundv’s travels. Hakluyt Soc. Ser. II, 46, 335 and 78, 83.



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