Mauritius: Flora & Fauna
Native or Not?
Less than five hundred years ago, flora and fauna were the only inhabitants on the tiny island of Mauritius. As an oceanic island, Mauritius formed in isolation from other land masses. This means all wildlife on the island either had to fly or swim here in order to call Mauritius home. Once underwater volcanoes built up enough land to support life on the island, birds could land, tortoises could swim, and seeds could float from other nearby islands to populate its new shores.
While many of the native plants and animals once found Mauritius have gone extinct – a large portion as a result of human interference – early drawings from settlers on the island depict some of these original species. One drawing from Dutch archives, for example, dates back to 1670 and shows the Mauritian Shelduck, a type of goose that once found its natural habitat on Mauritius. I find these sailors’ records fascinating and try to imagine animals that could not be found elsewhere on the planet! These are known as endemic species and differ from indigenous, or native, species in that they are absolutely unique to their area.
On Mauritius, human interference with these endemic species was both intentional and unintentional. Ever since humans started populating the island, so did non-native species of plants and animals, brought ashore from foreign ships. In fact, most of the flora and fauna found on the island today arrived with different groups of settlers. Sugarcane is a prime example of an imported species: it would never have occurred naturally on the island before Dutch attempts at colonizing the island, beginning in 1638.
Though some of these non-native species thrive in the Mauritian climate as if they belong here, these foreign plants and animals can actually disrupt the original wildlife by altering their habitat permanently. With the extinct dodo, foreign animal species like rats, pigs, monkeys, and deer competed with the bird for food sources and also ate the eggs it laid. After only 80 years, the dodo completely vanished from Mauritius.
Along with the dodo, all but one species of giant tortoise have also gone extinct. The Aldabra tortoise remains an interesting example of an indigenous, rather than endemic, species that continues to call Mauritius home today. The Aldabra tortoise originated in the nearby island nation of Seychelles. With a similar habitat, Mauritius has also proved to be a suitable territory for the Aldabra tortoise.
Like the dodo, sailors often hunted the giant tortoises for their meat. The Aldabra tortoise population was also nearly destroyed as sailors herded them onto their ships by the hundreds to provide a fresh food source on long journeys.
When you consider how tiny and isolated the island really is, it’s amazing to think that it has it’s very own unique species. Even in modern Mauritius, you can find species here you won’t find anywhere else, like the vivid emerald green Mauritius Parakeet. Seeing these animals has made me more aware, first-hand, of how easily a small population can be wiped out with even minimal outside interference. Nature’s delicate balance seems to rest here in Mauritius.