Mauritius is a small volcanic island of about 2000 square kilometers, located 900 km east of Madagascar. Because of its origin as an oceanic island that formed bereft of any life, it’s home to many rare and endemic species (some of which, like the dodo, are extinct).
When I asked readers to send photos of their biological research, Dr. Dennis Hansen, who is based at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Environmental Studies of the University of Zurich, came though in spades. He sent well over a dozen photos of his work on Mauritius, all of which were gorgeous. I’ll highlight some of them today and the rest tomorrow. First, a map:
A morning view from the most famous mountain in Mauritius, Le Morne. It is like a miniature South American Tepuis; we went there by helicopter to study the national flower of Mauritius, whose last populations survives on the vertical cliffs of the mountain. Up there, looking across to the southwestern Black River Gorge mountains, one can almost forget that the island also houses a destructive human population of 1.3 million on a mere 1865 square kilometers. Almost.
The first involves one of the world’s rarest birds: the Echo parakeet (also called the “Mauritius parakeet”), Psittacula echo, found on the southwest part of the island. If you’ve read Last Chance to See, you’ll know about the extraordinary effort expended in saving this gorgeous bird. Once down to a mere 9 individuals, and about to become an ex-parakeet, captive breeding has brought the population back to about 290 individuals. It’s one of the great success stories of conservation. Here are a couple of Dennis’s pictures; they are all of the same individual, named “Alpha” (note the band):
Some of these birds are so tame that they’ll do this:
Dennis described Alpha as “a sadly slightly too tame, hand-reared Echo parakeet. He hung around our field station in the rainforest & loved stealing my morning coffee.” When I asked him if Alpha did this often, and if he really liked the coffee, Dennis replied, “Yes, Alpha the Echo had a beak for coffee. I never let him drink it on purpose, and tried to keep him off my cup (easier said than done). But just this once I thought I’d want a photo of him in flagrante delicto.”
There’s a good description of how work is going on this species at the Odyssey website. Here are two photographs (by Genevieve and Chris Johnson, respectively) of a hand-reared Echo parakeet abandoned by its parents. Note the full crop in the first photo!
The next species is endemic to the Seychelles, an archipelago whose location is on the map above. (By the way, both Mauritius and the Seychelles have endemic species of Drosophila in the D. melanogaster subgroup, D. mauritiana and D. sechellia respectively. I’ve spent years working on these species, and have published quite a bit on them, but, sadly, I’ve never had the privilege of visiting either island).
If you thought that the giant land tortoise was endemic only to the Galápagos, think again. The Aldabra atoll (a series of island in the Seychelles) has its own (smaller) species of giant tortoise, Aldabrachelys (or Geochelone) gigantea. And while there about 19,000 individuals in toto on the Galápagos, there are more than 150,000 individuals of the Aldabra species. Some of them have been transplanted to Mauritius to replace its extinct endemic tortoise, and that’s where these photos come from. First, a tortoise eating a fruit:
Look at those jaws! Dennis reports that this, however, is a yawn:
And of course all of those tortoises have to come from somewhere. Dennis describes the photo below:
Two giant Aldabra tortoises having fun at the La Vanille Tortoise Reserve in Mauritius (where we do a lot of our feeding experiments). You can’t spend more than 30 minutes around these behemoths before you hear/see it. Cracks me up every time.
Note the huge disparity in size between male and female (also seen in the video below):
Dennis also sent a link to a 26-second video of mating Aldabra tortoises (below). You’ll find it sad, touching, and hilarious. I still wonder how insemination can really occur this way!
Tomorrow: gorgeous geckos that pollinate flowers.
Oh, and heeeere’s Dennis: