Overview of Mauritius’ Natural History
The popular tourist destination, Mauritius has an interesting geological and historical background, of which little is known. Located in the South-West of the Indian Ocean, Mauritius sits in a line along a submerged ridge called the Seychelles-Mauritius Plateau which is located some 640 to 800 km east of Madagascar.
Mauritius is featured as one of the youngest Mascarene Islands to form, the older islands being Reunion and Rodrigues Island. It was created by a gigantic volcanic eruption back to some 8-15 million years ago. This has given rise to a paradise island with luxuriantly beautiful flora and fauna, along with spectacular geological features. However, with the arrival of European colonists in the 16th century, much destruction has been caused to the then ecosystem. The passing ships used the Mascarene islands including Mauritius as a ‘stop-over’ to replenish their food stock, and find valuable commodities such as the ebony woods to sell overseas. The colonists hunted the indigenous fauna which caused the extinction of the ground dwelling Dodo Bird and the related Rodrigues Solitaire Bird.
With the frequent visit of ships to Mauritius, the European colonials consequently introduced foreign species such as rabbits, dogs, goats, deers, and rats to the island’s environment. The combination of hunting, species introductions, deforestation and farming has dramatically changed the habitats of Mauritius and caused the extinction of species. Today many of the surviving endemic species are seriously threatened with extinction.
Thus, it becomes very crucial to preserve the last trails of the extinct species in the museum to show our future generations about the impacts of human activities to its environment. The Mauritius Natural History Museum does not only serve as an interesting tourist attraction but also as an institution to educate people around the world about the natural beauty of Mauritius and its ecosystem as a whole.
Mauritius Natural History Museum- Background History
The 19th century Mauritius Natural History Museum is situated in the less hectic area of the Capital City-Port Louis, precisely on the ground floor of the Mauritius Institute Building (just right in front of the ‘Jardin de la Compagnie’. The museum is known to be the oldest on the island and is a partial replica of the Sri Lankan, Colombo Museum building. The cream and white colored building was once the old Royal College in Port Louis. It was established by Governor Sir George Ferguson Bowen and designed by the British architect M.Mann. The establishment was proclaimed as a National Heritage of Mauritius in 2000.
The museum had its first collection from the two naturalists – Julien Desjardins and Louis Bouton. The collection was formerly exposed in the Desjardins Museum which opened its door in 1842 and was later transferred to the Mauritius Institute in 1885. The collection comprised mainly of marine fauna and birds from the Mascarene Islands. It formed the basis of the present day Natural History Museum. The museum focused on the systematic collection, study and recording of the fauna and flora of Mauritius and the Mascarene Islands. Over the years, the museum has developed into a centre of documentation and exchange in the various fields of natural history of the Mascarenes region.
The Natural History Museum today showcases the past 500 years of Mauritius’s rich and diverse flora and fauna, through its four permanent galleries. As to the present record, the museum is home to more than 35,000 geological samples and natural history specimens, 3,000 of which are on display. Due to the fact that the island was a paradise to endemic animals, the famous Dodo, giant land tortoises, and about 300 endemic plants including the Ebony tree are also showcased.
The Mauritius Natural History exhibition consists of four galleries notably: the Fauna Gallery, the Marine Life Gallery, the Insects, Meteorology & Giant Tortoise Gallery and finally the Dodo Gallery. The main hall (Fauna Gallery) showcases the extinct sea and shore birds, whilst the second gallery (Marine Life Gallery) is dedicated to underwater life where you will find more than 100 species of fish which exist in Mauritian waters. The third gallery (Insects, Meteorology & Giant Tortoise Gallery) features the geology and meteorology of the island. The fourth gallery (Dodo Gallery) is dedicated to the Mauritius national animal-the Dodo, where its significance is shown with the aid of matchboxes, stamps and banknotes where dodos have been printed on. A short archaeological film-documentary shows the excavation of dodo skeletons in Mare aux Songes, led by the Mauritian-Dutch team.
Mauritius Natural History-Fauna Gallery
Your first educational trip takes you back to the Jurassic Period, around 150 million of years ago, where you will see the cast fossil of an Archaeopteryx, donated by the British Museum. Archaeopteryx is referred to as Urvogel (“first bird”) in German. This type of ‘primitive bird’ shared a number of features common both to birds and dinosaurs of that time. There is a peculiar link with these two species. They had small teeth as well as long bony tail. It is believed that it is the first bird of its kind to change from being a land dweller to a bird. The only specimens of Archaeopteryx that have been discovered come from the Solnhofen limestone in Bavaria, Southern Germany.
Extinct and Endangered Species’ Collection
The Dodo, the centrepiece of the museum, is displayed in this gallery. The skeleton of the Dodo, collected by E. Thirioux, a barber and amateur collector, in 1900, is unique in the sense that all the bones come from one individual bird. The extinction of the Dodo, within 80 years of its discovery, made man realize for the first time that he could induce the extinction of plants and animals. The oldest stuffed specimen in the museum is the Mauritian Dutch Pigeon which was killed in 1826. A skeleton of the Rodrigues Solitaire, discovered in Caverne Patate in 1900, is also exhibited in this gallery. Other important scientific treasures in the museum are the unique and incomplete skeletons of the Mauritian Red Rail, the giant Mauritian Lizard (biggest lizard in the world) and a pickled specimen of the extinct Round Island Burrowing Boa.
Stuffed Bird Specimens
This section displays birds from different parts of the world such as marsh birds and migrating birds alongside species introduced in the island. The Indian Myna (local name: Martin – introduced from India), the Common Waxbill (local name: Bengali – introduced from South Africa), the House Sparrow (local name: Moineau – introduced from India) are some of the various bird species you will likely find everywhere around Mauritius.
Another ‘discrete bird’ is the Spice finch (local name: Pingo) which is not frequently seen compared to the yellow-fronted Canary (Local name: Serein du pays – introduced from Tropical Africa), a bird species which flits around chiefly in the Filao trees on the sun soaked beaches of Mauritius.
Tropic birds of Mauritius
Mauritius has some offshore isolated and virgin islets which are home to several gorgeous birds such as the White-tailed Tropicbird, the Red-tailed Tropicbird, and the Trinidad Petrel, which majestically soar over Coin de Mire, Round Island, Ilot Gabriel, and Flat Island.
Out of the 25 species of endemic birds unique to Mauritius, only 8 have survived the activities of man and the destruction of their fragile natural habitat by exotic mammals. Some of the Mauritian endangered bird species are protected in nature reserves such as Ile aux Aigrettes, Macchabée, Bel Ombre Nature Reserve, Black River Gorges Natural Park and at Bassin Blanc.
List of some Endangered Bird Species of Mauritius
- Pink Pigeon
- Mauritius Olive White-eye
- Mascarene Paradise Flycatcher
- Mauritius Black Bulbul
- Mauritius Grey White Eye
- Mauritius Cuckooshrike
- Mauritius Kestrel
- Mauritius Echo Parakeet
Mauritius Natural History Museum-Marine Life Gallery
The second gallery of the Natural History Museum is reserved to Marine life where you will witness a range of stuffed fish species, crabs, echinoderms, molluscs and marine mammals: whales and dolphins. The fish display comprises of sharks, eels, rays and poisonous, commercial & sport fishes. Most of these fish populate the sea around Mauritius and the Indian Ocean. Many are displayed in glass cases while some hang from the ceiling. The collection is rather old and you can immediately sense their lackluster due to prolonged exposure. You will also have the chance to learn about poisonous fish, which are showcased too. Fish poisoning in Mauritius was reported as far as 1601 when the Dutch sailors became ill from eating fish. They were cured by swallowing a mixture of oil and vinegar.
Additionally, you will see a very rare sea urchin named Acanthocidaris curvastispina. Only three adult specimens of this sea urchin are known in the world. This gallery has on display a beautiful collection of murex donated by George Antelme in 1934. There also is one specimen of the Giant Clamshell donated to the Museum by the British Governor Sir Arthur Phayre in 1874. It is the largest bivalve weighing about 70 kg and it was collected in the gulf of Bengal. A specimen of the mollusc Conus aulicus, holding the world record size for this species at 7 inches, is also on display in the gallery. Not to mention the skull of a sperm whale, washed up on Ile de la Passe and found in October 1986 and the skull of a beaked whale, will definitely attract your attention.
Insects, Meteorology and Giant Tortoise Gallery
The third gallery of the Natural History Museum has different sections where interesting displays are based on geology, meteorology, corals, shrimps, insects, turtles and local woods.
In the geology section, an illuminated model of a volcano and the various types of Mauritian rocks are shown. Here you will get to know much about the origin of the island through its various geological artifacts. The formation and distribution of various corals – hexacorals, octocorals (gorgonians or sea fans) and madrepores are well illustrated side by side with local and exotic butterflies and insects found in Mauritius.
You will also get to see and learn about the giant tortoise, believed to be over 200 years old. It was brought to Mauritius from the Seychelles by Chevalier Marion Dufresne in 1776 and it died in 1918. An almost complete collection of butterflies, including the rare Papilio demodocus var. carrei and hawk moths, is exhibited. This room also presents a display of local woods.
In the Plant section you will discover endemic plants and reptiles of Mauritius for instance, the Trochetia Boutoniana (French: Boucle d’Oreille) is the National Flower of Mauritius since 12th March 1992 – the day our country achieved the status of Republic. The Ebony wood, a hardwood much sought after by the colonial Dutch and cuttings of other endemic hardwood such as Bois Makak, Bois de clous, Manahé, Bois cerf and Bois Tatamaka are also exposed.
The Dodo gallery is one of the highlights of the museum, as the dodo is symbolic to Mauritius as much as the panda is to China or the kangaroo to Australia. The Dodo (scientific name: Raphus cucullatus)-a flightless bird was first encountered in the late 1500s or early 1600s when the Dutch came to Mauritius. They called it walghvogel (nauseous bird) due to the fact that although it stewed for a long time, only the breast was tasty. By the mid-1600s the bird, a member of the pigeon family, was already extinct due to intensive hunting and the destruction of their ground nests by introduced rats and pigs.
The Mare aux Songes Archaeological Excavation
In 2005 a Dutch-Mauritian research team excavated remains of the dodo at Mare Aux Songes, a freshwater lake formed as a result of sea level rises, 4000 years ago. The Mare aux Songes is considered as a mass grave of the fauna and flora of the island. The excavation team found more than 8000 bones of the dodo, extinct tortoises, fossil plant material, snail shells and insect remains.
This discovery led to many interrogations. It is still a mystery how this mass grave was formed and why so many different species of animals and dead plants became concentrated in this small area; forming a half meter thick concentration of fossils.
Radioactive carbon dating of bones provided clues that the animals died within a couple of centuries, but scientists cannot explain why. Ongoing geological and paleontological research by the Dodo Research Programme aims to shed more light on the enigma.
Museum Opening Hours Information:
Monday to Friday: 09:00hrs-16:00hrs (except Wednesday – closed)
Sunday and Public holidays: Closed
Entrance: Free of charge
Address: Mauritius Institute Building, Chaussée, Port Louis (in between Jardin de la Compagnie and Government House)