Popular Science Monthly/Volume 5/July 1874/Animals Extinct in the Historic Period
|ANIMALS EXTINCT IN THE HISTORIC PERIOD.|
By EMILE BLANCHARD.
TRANSLATED FROM THE REVUE DES DEUX MONDES, BY A. R. MACDONOUGH,
ALL beings are exposed to more or less frequent dangers, and are constantly struggling to defend their lives. They have to dread the inclemency of the seasons, and must perish if they fail to find a sufficiency of food; the herbivorous are destined to become a prey to the carnivorous, and, when there seems no need of a victim, deadly battles occur for the possession of a place or the conquest of a prize. Destruction is a natural law; but this destruction is restrained within certain limits: notwithstanding the perils that incessantly threaten the existence of all creatures, every thing works actively to secure the maintenance of races. That instinct of preservation which goads individuals to fly from danger and seek the satisfaction of their material wants, allows many to escape accidents. If the causes of violent death vary within the widest range among animal species, they are always proportioned to the causes that protect against it. Fecundity, restricted among powerful animals, and limited also in those that have only the attacks of the strongest to fear, is prodigious among the weakest that are doomed to yield a multitude of victims. Thus the complete disappearance of any species is only possible under wholly exceptional conditions. Usually, the species destroyed at one point continues to propagate itself at another: if abundant at one period, it is rare at another, when circumstances become unfavorable; yet it has not ceased to be represented, in some corner of the world. Certainty in this respect has been gained by exact and very numerous observations. Since the day when the last grand physical phenomena were completed on the surface of the globe, few animals have disappeared. Only some great species have become extinct, and man alone is the author of that extinction, so much to be regretted. It has been supposed that species, like individuals, were doomed to perish. It might be difficult to form any other conclusion, were we to consider the relics of those beings that have lived in the different geological periods; but if we examine the world as it exists we are forced to reject that belief, except on the supposition that new disturbances will hereafter occur on our globe.
While Central Europe, almost completely given up to Nature, was covered with vast forests and its inhabitants were thinly scattered, animals found few obstacles to their increase. The great species, quite rare in our time, were common in very many localities. Wild-oxen, aurochs, moose, and stags, roved in great herds, having nothing to fear but carnivora, especially bears and wolves. Men increasing in numbers changed the condition of the region; the animals were driven closer, and several of the more remarkable species, being easy to reach and attack, soon disappeared. The blind cupidity and love of destruction that possess uncivilized races have caused the loss of animals that might have been useful and valuable to man.
In spite of all this, the number of mammals entirely destroyed since the last important changes that have occurred in the climates of Europe is inconsiderable. It is now proved that man was already in existence during the epoch in which elephants clothed with a thick fleece, the rhinoceros, the cave bear and hyena, lived in our countries, and the reindeer was scattered over the land in abundance. Thousands of bones, collected side by side with wrought articles, have given incontestable proofs of this; but the disappearance of elephants and that of several other species must be attributed chiefly to natural causes, and with those we have no concern at present, even when speaking of a partial destruction. In fact, various animals, extinct in some parts of the world, under the influence of atmospheric conditions, have maintained an existence in regions subjected to a climate adapted to them. The reindeer, which was distributed through an immense geographical range in the glacial period, is the most striking instance of this.
A very large mammal, whose existence is not preserved by any tradition, must nevertheless have been among those exterminated by man; that is, the great-horned stag, also called the Irish fossil elk, an animal of the size of the ordinary elk, with the general form of the stag, and enormous horns attaining a spread of more than nine feet. Relics of this magnificent elk have been found in the boggy lands of France, England, Italy, Germany, and Poland. But the remains of this superb animal are chiefly found in Ireland, under those peat-beds which, in all probability, were formed at no very remote period. Judging from that circumstance, naturalists are inclined to think that the great-horned elk must have long survived the extinction of the great pachyderms. Of late years bones of this species have been found in such quantities as to allow the construction of entire skeletons.
If the existence of the Irish elk is too much a thing of the past to have received historic mention, the case is otherwise with the great wild-ox of Europe (Bos primigenius of naturalists), an animal whose size surpassed by a third that of our domestic oxen. This ruminant has left abundant remains in the bottoms of water-courses, in alluvials, peat-bogs, and caves. Like the bison which still survives, it inhabited the forests of Central Europe less than 1,000 years ago. The fact is proved by the writings of old authors. Cæsar was not acquainted with the bison, but he describes with vivid touches the wild-oxen of the Hercynian forest, which he calls by the name of the urus. "They have," says the Roman conqueror, "a stature little below that of elephants; in appearance, color, and form, they are like bulls. Of great swiftness and extremely powerful, they spare neither men nor beasts when seen. They are taken in trenches skillfully prepared. The youths fit themselves to endure fatigue by the practice of hunting these animals. Those who kill many of them display their horns publicly in proof, and receive great applause. The urus can neither be tamed nor accustomed to the sight of man, even though taken very young. The horns of these animals differ much from those of our oxen, in size, shape, and appearance. They are much sought after by the natives, who decorate the edges with a silver circlet, and use them for goblets at great feasts."
The two bovine species of ancient Europe are plainly designated in Seneca's verses: wild-oxen, with great horns, and bisons, with shaggy backs. Pliny makes the same distinction between the wild-oxen of Germany, bisons having a mane, and the urus remarkable for strength and swiftness, to which the name of bubalus is commonly wrongly given. That name really belongs to the buffalo (Bos buhalus), an animal native to Asia, and long ago well known to the Greeks; but it is generally used in the middle ages to denote the urus of Cæsar. The species had not disappeared from the forests of the Vosges and Ardennes during the first centuries of the French monarchy, for Gregory of Tours relates that, by order of King Gontran, a chamberlain, his nephew, and a forest-keeper, were put to death, for having killed a "bubal" in a royal forest situated in the Vosges. Besides, Venuntius Fortunatus, the poet, bishop of Poitiers in 599, mentions in his verses the bubal among the animals hunted in Ardennes and the Vosges by Gogoor, the first mayor of the palace of Austrasia, mentioned in history. The existence together in the Central European forests of the two ruminants mentioned by Latin authors is once more attested by a passage in the famous poem of the "Nibelungen." It is the description of a magnificent hunt; the Burgunds dwell on the banks of the Rhine, and their king, Gunther, leads Siegfried the Strong, the hero of the poem, into the forest of Odenwald, where dwell bears, elks, wild-boars, stags, and oxen. Siegfried distinguishes himself among all his comrades by killing a great number of wild beasts, and among others a bison and four urus. According to Eckhart, the learned Benedictine, the great ox or bubal was still existing in the Hyrcanian forest in Charlemagne's time, and certainly in some parts of Helvetia. A proof of the latter point is given by the catalogue of meats in use among the good monks of Saint-Gall; the urus, or bubal, and the bison both appear on the list.
Thus it is impossible to doubt that two wild bovine species were living in Europe till the eleventh century; but, dating from that epoch, nothing more is said of the great-horned ox, the urus of Cæsar, the bubal of common people. The utter silence of all writers shows that the destruction of the species was complete. One of the finest animals in the world had become extinct.
Very soon after naturalists had begun to search for the remains of animals belonging to ancient geological periods, they dug up bones of a huge ox, with remains of the core of horns of surprising size. Whole heads and different parts of skeletons were found in rivers, marshes, peat-bogs, in the north and east of France, in England, Germany, and Italy. After careful examination, Cuvier did not hesitate to recognize in these bones the relics of the urus of the ancients; the fact was put beyond doubt by comparison of texts, and studies of the characteristics known to osteology. But that illustrious zoologist, in regarding as the primitive stock of our domestic species that great wild-ox described by Cæsar and hunted by Charlemagne's contemporaries, fell into an error that is now fully admitted. Our oxen came from Asia; in spite of conditions very favorable to bodily development, they retain a size far less than that of the wild species, and are distinguished from them by several marks, particularly by the curve of the horns. Multiplying freely for three centuries in the pampas of South America, they show no tendency to take the dimensions or other characteristics of the urus, which, moreover, was never subdued to the yoke by man.
At a later date than that of Cuvier's writings, a professor of Wilna, Bojardus, obtained an almost perfect skeleton of the great ox of the ancient Gallic and German forests, and, supposing the species to be fossil, he gave it the name, which is now generally used, of Bos primigenius. Of very late years, fortunate discoveries encouraged the hope of success in reconstructing the history of humanity previous to historic times, with the aid of materials obtained by excavation. Researches carried on with extreme ardor have collected a vast number of objects that throw an entirely new light on the life of men and animals in the epoch called prehistoric. Remains of the Bos primigenius have been discovered in great quantities in grottoes, sandy deposits, and alluvial soil; and some have been obtained from the lake habitations of Lake Constance, where they have been made into utensils. By this means every thing relating to the great-horned wild-ox has become thoroughly known. The Bos primigenius is no other than the urus of Cæsar, Seneca, and Pliny, the bubalus of Fortunatus and Gregory of Tours, a species contemporaneous with the great pachyderms and great carnivora extinct long before historic times, but which continued to live amid the forests of Central Europe until completely exterminated by men, only eight or ten centuries ago.
The bison of the ancients, now called the aurochs, is not entirely destroyed, though its early complete disappearance is threatened. It yet lives in the condition of a zoological specimen, and there have been opportunities of late of seeing it in some menageries. Formerly it was spread over the greater part of Europe, but it has only been found in certain regions since the historic period began. Aristotle mentions it under the name of bonasus, as an animal of Pœnia, that is, of the part of Thrace which is now Bulgaria, and gives a tolerably exact description of it. That which particularly strikes the Greek author in the bonasus is its body, larger than that of the common ox, the mane covering its nape to the shoulders and falling over its eyes, and the woolly hair, of a reddish gray on the lower parts; marks which agree only with those of the bison. Oppian and Pausanias, as well as Seneca and Pliny, speak of the bison, so easily recognized by his heavy neck and shoulders, rounded forehead, shaggy back, and long legs. It was supposed that the aurochs had already disappeared from Gaul at the time of the Roman invasion, because Cæsar makes no mention of it. The proof is imperfect, and it cannot be doubted that the bison was still existing, several centuries later, together with the great wild-ox, at least in Ardennes and the Vosges. It seems to have maintained itself much later in the great Hercynian forest, which stretched from the Rhine to the Danube; but, since a date that cannot be exactly fixed, it has ceased to inhabit the eastern parts of Europe. In our time there remain only a few pairs in Lithuania, in the forest of Bialovicza and in the Caucasus. In the latter country it would appear that the aurochs is now quite rare, for Prof. Brandt, of St. Petersburg, the savant who has given most study to the mammals of Russia, had fears that the disappearance of this fine animal was complete; but he learned that they were still to be met with in a locality called Rudeln. More recently we have been informed that a small herd of some fifty animals was known to exist near the village of Atzikhar, on the upper Ouroup. Not a solitary one would remain either in Lithuania or the Caucasus, did not the Russian law forbid taking or killing an aurochs without imperial permission, under pain of death.
The elk, the stag, the chamois, and the wild-goat, still belong to the European fauna; but, unless measures are taken to check the destruction of these mammals, very few centuries will pass before their complete extermination.
Every one who visits a museum of natural history experiences surprise at sight of the moose, a kind of enormous deer. A clumsy form, long legs, a thick muzzle, an extremely short neck, a tuft on the withers, a dewlap fringed with hair under the throat, give the animal an extraordinary appearance, which, in the male, is heightened by huge horns, flattened and serrated on the outer edge. The moose inhabits the marshy forests of the northern parts of Europe and America; it is affirmed that it may still be found at some points in eastern Germany, and it is chiefly met with in Sweden and Norway, Lithuania, the north of Russia, Siberia, and Tartary. It was formerly spread over all Germany, as the hunts of the middle ages preserved in narratives prove. For the authors of the seventeenth or eighteenth century the moose continues a tolerably common species in Poland and Sweden, but is rare for the moderns. Though become quite uncommon in Europe within a hundred years, it continued very abundant at the same period in the Northern United States of America; but every winter it is more eagerly pursued, and this fine animal has ceased to be reckoned among the resources of food for the inhabitants.
In early days our European deer roved everywhere in herds under the great forests, and now scarcely any of them exist in France, except in particularly well-protected forests, where they may be counted by single specimens. Every one has heard retired hunters say again and again, in speaking of deer, "Very soon there will be no more of them." The smaller ruminants, that delight in the cliffs of the highest mountains, and the neighborhood of glaciers, are spared as little. The destruction of the chamois and wild-goat is going on with lamentable rapidity, and it is completed with no other object than the desire of exhibiting skill. The mountaineer is proud of having killed a chamois, and if he kills several he thinks himself a personage deserving admiration. Go to Switzerland, and they will show you, in a hundred places, some part of the mountains where herds of chamois were formerly seen, and you will hear it almost uniformly declared that now there are very few of them, or none at all, left. Go to the Pyrenees; in that region, where the chamois is called the isar, they will tell you that the isar is now exceedingly rare. The chamois, the single European representative of the antelope group, being found scattered over all the great mountains of Europe, will doubtless long maintain itself against the unceasing pursuit of hunters; but the pretty wild-goat of the Alps, once very widely spread, no longer exists, except in a very confined part of the Piedmontese Alps, and perhaps in some nook of Mont Blanc. The chamois and goat, agile animals frequenting most inaccessible regions, swift to fly at the approach of danger, often escaped the hunter's aim when the weapon carried no great distance; long-range guns have become the scourge of Alpine animals.
Thus, within historic times, the Bos primigenius, the huge, great-horned ox of Gaul and Germany, has been exterminated. The bison, the largest of mammals in modern Europe, is on the point of disappearing. The other wild ruminants are threatened with more or less remote extinction, and the local authorities in each country hardly understand the importance of checking a deplorable mischief which will soon be beyond remedy.
The history of the beaver is too well known to be repeated at length. A mammal of the highest interest from its habits, valuable for the products it yielded to commerce and manufactures, the beaver, the largest of our rodents, was abundant in France and a great part of Europe, down to the middle ages. In our day, its existence is almost questionable. For several centuries they have been seen only on the banks of the Rhone, or some affluent of that great river, and the few individuals observed in their solitude, far from being objects of special protection, have always been killed. It seems that quite lately a little family of beavers was discovered on an island of the Rhone; it was a piece of good luck, bringing the hope of seeing a nearly extinct species revive again in the country. They were all destroyed without mercy; such a piece of stupidity is possible among civilized people, when those who commit it do not even understand the wrong they are doing. At present beavers are hardly more common in the other parts of Europe than they are in France, and everywhere their buried bones, in mud and peat-bogs, remain the witness of those associations which were the wonder of animal life. In Canada, beavers almost identical with those of Europe were still quite generally found at no very remote time; but they have become extremely rare. Their destruction has been brought about very rapidly, through the cupidity of those great companies formed in North America in the last century for trading in furs.
Extermination, pursued in a senseless fashion, has not only fallen upon land mammals, but has been carried on as to marine species with even greater fury. The large animals of the sea gave rise to active industry and important commerce; but selfishness, and the love of gain, which forget the future in the present, have dried up that source. A century ago, the whale was the object of most profitable fisheries, and those huge cetacea are now so uncommon that their pursuit is given up by most of the nations that once grew rich by following it. Whalers were not content with the capture of old fish, but took younger ones, of very little value, as well as those full-grown. The satisfaction felt in depriving others of the possibility of a good catch two or three years later was too great to permit the reflection that success would thus soon become impossible for all whalers.
The rytina an herbivorous, cetaceous animal, belonging to the lamantin and dugong group, called sea-cows by the inhabitants of the coasts, was common a few hundred years ago in the latitudes of Behring's Islands. This animal, which attained a length of about sixteen feet, was valuable as a resource for the northern tribes, especially the Esquimaux; the flesh provided very acceptable food, and the skin was of use in making their canoes. The pursuit of the rytina has been followed unceasingly, without the least restraint, and these useful cetacea entirely destroyed; the last living one was taken in 1768.
The rytina, covered with a bare skin, black in color, and wrinkled like the bark of an oak, had a mustache with hairs as thick as the quill of a pigeon's feather. These harmless animals delighted in herding together, young and old mingled, and a male and female were often seen moving about together, accompanied by their young family. The rytina usually haunted rather shallow, sandy places, particularly near rivers. They fed on various marine plants, showing a preference, however, for a particular kind of sea-weed. The animals were often seen browsing as they swam slowly, or walked along the bottom, stepping leisurely, like cattle in the fields, and, when satisfied, coming to the shore to lie on their backs. Sometimes in the winter they would be caught and confined under the ice, and die for want of air, their bodies afterward washing ashore. This explains the ease with which, even now, great quantities of the bones of these herbivorous cetacea of Behring's Islands are collected. All that we know of this animal's history has been handed down to us by the memoir of a naturalist and physician, Steller, published in 1751. He accompanied Behring on his voyage to the northwest of America. After the wreck of the ship, followed by the death of the commander and the greater part of his crew, Steller remained on the islands, to which he gave the name of the Russian navigator, till the sailors escaped from the wreck had built a vessel out of the fragments of the ship, which gave them the means of reaching Kamtchatka. Very lately, Russian zoologists have made all possible efforts to rediscover Steller's rytina, but all the labor of their researches has been fruitless. They have only succeeded in procuring some of the animal's bones, and in 1861 the savants of St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Helsingfors, had the satisfaction of receiving almost entire skeletons, sent to the governor of the Russian-American possessions, which gave an opportunity for important studies on the osteology of this singular cetacean by Brandt and Nordmann.
The losses suffered by birds have been different, and far more serious than those of mammals; various species, highly remarkable either for great size, or for almost exceptional peculiarities in conformation, have completely disappeared. As to some, the fact is certain, and the presumption is strong as to others. Incapable of flight, and confined to islands, these birds could not escape the attacks of men, and men have exterminated them.
When Pedro de Mascarenhas discovered the islands of the Indian Ocean, in the early years of the sixteenth century, Mauritius, Rodriguez, Bourbon, formerly St. Appolonia, and now Reunion Island, which were called, after the name of the Portuguese navigator, the Mascarene Islands, these regions, covered with rich vegetation, were inhabited by birds in great numbers. Besides species belonging to groups represented in other parts of the world, as parrots, sparrows, pigeons, ducks, there were living some species which excited the astonishment of the navigators by their really extraordinary appearance. There were the dronte, or dodo, and the hermit-bird, which have furnished modern authors the theme for numberless writings. Naturalists long cherished the hope of finding again, at some point of the globe, those strange creatures which had no near relationship with any other living being; but the most zealous research has been fruitless, and the hope is abandoned. Many efforts have been made, with the aid of some remains, and a few imperfect sketches, to reconstruct those strange, extinct birds in a scientific way, without any early satisfactory results. Lately, the bones of these vanished species, gathered in tolerably large quantities, either at Rodriguez, or from a marsh in Mauritius, have enabled us to gain clearer ideas of them.
The dodo exceeded the swan in size, and presented the most extraordinary appearance. It had a massive body, supported on thick, short legs, like pillars, a swollen neck, a round head set off by a fringe of feathers brought forward over the face like a hood, great black eyes, ringed with white, and a huge bill, of which the two mandibles, rounded and broad at the end, and terminating in a point in the other direction, have been compared to two spoons laid with the hollow of the bowls against each other. The dodo had wings; but these wings, quite small, mere elements of wings, could be used for nothing; it had a tail, but the tail was reduced to a sort of tuft, made of four or five curly feathers. Then it had silky plumage of a gray color, lighter on the lower parts than on the back, and shaded with yellow on the wings and tail. The animal, absolutely ugly, clumsy, and stupid in its look, inspired repugnance. Buffon, who spoke of it as we do, from sketches and descriptions given by ancient observers, says, that it would be taken for a turtle muffled in a bird's skin.
The earliest notices of the natural productions of Mauritius Island come to us from a voyage made by the Dutch, in 1598. Cornelius Van Neck, the leader of the expedition, finding the island uninhabited, took possession of it, and traveled through the country with his companions, and in the account of his voyage he notes the most remarkable animals and vegetables that were met with on the island. He speaks of the dodo, described as a Walgvogel, "a disgusting bird." The animal, represented by a rather coarsely-executed picture, is described in simple terms, of which this passage will give some idea. "It is a bird," the narrator says, "which we called the disgusting bird, the size of a swan, has a round tail, covered with two or three curly tufts, has no wings, but instead of them there are three or four black tufts: of these birds we caught a certain number.... We cooked the bird; it was so leathery that we could not boil it enough, but we ate it half raw."
In 1601 two Dutch squadrons, one commanded by Hovmansz, the other by Van Heemskerk, sailed together from the East Indies on their return to Europe. The vessels soon parted, those of Heemskerk anchored at the island of Mauritius, and this time the crews found the dodo remarkably good eating. They probably understood better than Van Neck's men how to prepare them, and those they killed were perhaps fatter or younger. They ate a great number, and salted others down for the remainder of their voyage. Other birds abounded in the island, but were less easily caught than the great dodos, which had no power to fly, and no other means of defense than their huge bills. In the years following, Dutch navigators often landed at the Mauritius, and the dodos, killed with clubs by the sailors, always furnished a large part of the crews' provision; they worked zealously for the destruction of the poor birds, unable to escape pursuit. The Englishman, Sir Thomas Herbert, visiting the island in 1627, found the dodo still there; and Francis Cauche, a French sailor, author of the narrative of a voyage to Madagascar, touching at Mauritius in 1638, also saw there the dodo, or, as he called it, the nazar-bird, which builds its nest from a heap of grasses, on the ground. About the same date, a living dodo was exhibited in London: fortunately, artists took the opportunity to draw from nature the likeness of this strange bird, and the Dutch painter, Roelandt Savery, in particular, depicted it under various aspects. In this way the general appearance of this extinct species has been preserved for us. After the death of the one brought alive to England, it was stuffed, and at last found a place in the museum founded at Oxford by Ashmole.
Up to 1644 Mauritius Island, pretty frequently visited by navigators, had remained unpeopled; but in that year the Dutch founded a colony in it. Such an establishment of course brought about the extinction of the dodo, in which the dogs, cats, and pigs, introduced into the country, no doubt did their part by eating the young and the eggs. The last evidence of the dodo's existence dates in 1681; it is given by the log of an English sailor named Harry, aboard a vessel that wintered at Mauritius, homeward bound from India. In this document, preserved among the manuscripts of, the British Museum, the dodo is mentioned as having very tough flesh. And here the first part of the strange creature's history ends.
In 1693 the French naturalist Leguat pursued for several months an exploration of Mauritius Island. He describes a number of animals seen in the country, but he neither met with the dodo, nor did any one speak of it to him. The bird was extinct, and all attempts to find it vain; far less than a century had sufficed for the destruction of a species once abundant at one point on the globe.
At the period the dodo lived in, the natural sciences were very-little advanced, and the animal was not the subject of any serious study. Long afterward, zoologists continuing to be struck with the unusual interest attaching to this extinct bird, which was quite unique in creation, felt a laudable desire to complete the imperfections left by ancient accounts of it; but the materials remaining to throw light on the subject were very scanty. The stuffed specimen that had figured in the Oxford Museum had been sacrificed in 1755. The vice-chancellor of the university, and the other commissioners charged by Ashmole with the care of preserving the treasures he had collected, came at an unfortunate hour, as the excellent Strickland says, on their yearly visit to the museum. The poor specimen, more than a century old and doubtless much dilapidated, yet invaluable as the last of the dodos, was committed to the flames by order of the intelligent managers. By good luck, again, they preserved the head and one foot of the animal; scientific interest had nothing to do with the rescue; it was what the world calls an act of good administration.
When modern zoologists undertook to examine the characteristics and natural affinities of the dodo, the relics saved consisted only of the head and foot existing in the Oxford Museum, a foot in the collection of the British Museum at London, a head at Copenhagen forgotten for two hundred years and found again by chance, and a beak at Prague, more recently recovered.
These wretched remnants and the sketches already mentioned, when examined and compared from different points of view, opened a field for dissensions. A single fact was patent to all eyes, the very peculiar, very abnormal character of the dodo. Naturalists, as is usually the case, at first struck by peculiarities of a secondary order, marks of adaptation to a special kind of life, gave their most particular attention to the rudimentary state of the wings in the bird of Mauritius Island. A similar condition of the organs of flight existing in ostriches, and cassowaries, the idea of a more or less close relation between the dodo and those birds suggested itself. Dwelling on a consideration of the same kind, a resemblance was found to penguins and auks, with no greater reasonableness. Prof. de Blainville, paying more regard to the shape of the bill than any thing else, saw in the dodo a representative of the vulture group. Yet a bird of prey incapable of flight, unable to pursue its victims, might seem to us a very extraordinary creature; it must be supposed in such a case that snails, insects, and worms, were the animal's usual food, the resource of dead bodies having scarcely any existence in a region without mammals, like the Mascarene Islands. It has been supposed that the dodo had affinities with the gallinaceous tribes, that is with cocks, Guinea-fowl, turkeys, and some stilt-birds, and that it represented an intermediate type between different families in the class of birds; in a word every supposition was adopted without approaching the truth, so long as the examination was insufficient. Reinhardt, after carefully examining the dodo's skull preserved in the Copenhagen Museum, thought he discovered characteristics pointing out a zoological relation the bird of Mauritius and pigeons. A few years later, a great step toward a solution was made. Strickland, availing himself to the utmost of all procurable materials, published in 1848 an important work on the dodo. The fragments we have noted as existing in the Oxford Museum, a head and a foot, had been stripped of integuments, so as to allow the study of the bony parts; a singular pigeon, the didunculus, having a large curved bill, slightly-developed wings, and feet well formed for walking, had been discovered in the Samoa Island by an American savant. This pigeon, recalling slightly the marks and habits of the dodo, notwithstanding its small size, furnished a new and most valuable term of comparison. Strickland succeeded in this way in proving that the dodo approached very remarkably the family of Columbids, that is, of pigeons.
After the researches of that able naturalist, no more light could be expected with regard to the famous bird formerly hunted out of existence by the Dutch sailors, without some important discovery. Such a one has quite lately been made in Mauritius Island. In draining a small marsh, poetically called Dream Swamp, George Clark discovered a quantity of dodos' bones. These remains, sent to England and very soon distributed throughout France, quickly attracted attentive study; they permitted the almost complete reconstruction of the skeleton, and in the present state of science all imaginable means of comparison were at hand. Several zoologists gladly profited by these advantages. Alphonse Milne-Edwards, thoroughly familiar with the osteological characteristics of birds, entered actively on the investigation, and we think has succeeded in determining precisely the natural affinities of this singular bird. Recognizing, with Strickland, the very close relations connecting the dodo with pigeons, Edwards concludes that the bird of Mauritius is the type of a special family. Thus the fragments of the history of this strangely annihilated being have been successively brought together, but the complete account of the species remains beyond the possibility of discovery.
Till the seventeenth century the Mascarene Islands were inhabited by many other birds of which the memory has been handed down to us by the merely superficial accounts of some travelers. These birds, some perfectly unfit for flight, others tolerably well endowed as regards the power of their locomotive organs, but having nothing to fear in the absence of men, lived undisturbed in the unpeopled regions of Rodriguez, Bourbon, and Mauritius. They have been destroyed by the attacks of settlers in a very short lapse of time; and now their bones, still collected in small quantities, are the only vestiges that denote the places shared in possession with other harmless beings. Travelers in old times have spoken of the hermit-bird of Rodriguez, the red hen with a snipe's bill, the giant, the bluebird of Bourbon, the hazel-fowl, and immense water-hens. The destruction of these animals is utter.
Francis Leguat, flying from France with a Protestant party, came in 1691 to the island of Rodriguez, till then unexplored, and lived there two years. The story of our compatriot's "Travels and Adventures" has been published; we find in it the description of the fine bird called by him the hermit (Pezophaps solitarius). Of all the birds in Rodriguez Island, Leguat says this is the most remarkable species. The males are variously feathered with gray and brown, with the feet of a turkey, and the bill shaped like the turkey's also, but a little more hooked. They are almost tailless, and their rump is rounded and covered with feathers, higher on the legs than the turkey; they have a straight and rather long neck, a black sparkling eye, and a head without crest or tuft. The female, our traveler says, is admirably beautiful; there are blonds and brunettes among them, marked on the forehead with a stripe like a widow's band, and on the breast with plumage whiter than the rest of the body. They walk with such a mingling of pride and gracefulness that one cannot avoid admiring and loving them, so that their good looks often save their lives. Not a feather lies uneven on their whole body, such pains do they take to smooth and arrange their plumage with their bills. These hermit-birds do not fly; they only use their wings, which are too small to bear the weight of the body, either in fighting or drumming when calling each other. Leguat adds that they are taken with great difficulty in the woods; but in open places it is easy to run them down, as they are not very swift. From March to September they are extremely fat, and the taste, especially of the young ones, excellent. Some among the males are found weighing forty-five pounds. These birds, intending to build a nest, choose a clear spot, collect a few palm-leaves, and raise the structure a foot and a half above the surface; they hatch but one egg at a time, and the male and female sit alternately during seven weeks, the period of incubation, and for some months longer the young bird needs assistance from the old ones. These beautiful birds of Rodriguez, called hermits because they seldom go in flocks, were abundant in the island at the end of the seventeenth century, when the French naturalist expressed such admiration for them. In a few years they have all perished, and nothing but bones crusted with stalagmite permitted us to ascertain that the species described by Leguat was of a kind unknown elsewhere, when an English explorer, Newton, undertook to examine the caves and boggy lands of the small island of Rodriguez. More than two thousand fragments, the last traces of the extinct bird, were collected. The study of these wretched relics was made with the greatest care, and we now know that the hermit-bird represented a special type, having close affinities with the dodo and the pigeon. A singular detail leads us to place full reliance on Leguat's observations. Our traveler had said, in speaking of the males of this Rodriguez bird: "The wing of the pinion thickens at its end, and forms a little round mass like a musket-ball under the feathers; this, with the bill, is the bird's chief defense." This little round mass has been found in the shape of a bony prominence on that part of the limb called the metacarpus.
At the Isle of Bourbon, as at Mauritius and Rodriguez, the first explorers found many birds that were clumsy and unable to fly. A species resembling the dodo, described by Dubois, as also by the Dutch Bontrekoe and the Englishman Castleton, was completely white, like a young lamb. A sketch of this bird has lately been found in an old picture; it is a true white dodo, with a yellow tinge on the wings. A hermit observed by the traveler Carré in 1688, probably quite distinct from the Rodriguez species, was magnificent: "The beauty of its plumage," the account says, "is lovely to behold, being a changeable color verging to yellow." A large bluebird with red beak and feet was in all probability of the group of superb sultan-fowls which zoologists call the porphyrions and notornis. All these birds have completely disappeared.
Several species, now extinct, inhabited Mauritius in particular, as the dodo, less than a century and a half ago. Francis Cauche, as also a Protestant missionary named Hoffman, described "red fowls with snipes' bills" which were taken by hand on offering them a bit of red cloth. It would be hard to determine the species by so vague an indication, but a piece of good fortune lately came to our aid. Some paintings on vellum have been discovered in the private library founded by the Austrian Emperor Francis I.; one represents the dodo, another the snipe-beaked hen. De Frauenfeld has published these drawings, and, greatly struck by the extraordinary peculiarities of the red fowl without wings, he has named for it a genus, Aphanapteryx, without, however, succeeding in deciding upon the bird's natural affinities. More fortunate, Milne-Edwards had seen some of the bones taken from the famous Dream Swamp, and he clearly recognized in the Aphanapteryx a type of the rail family. With this family, and particularly with the group of the swift-runners, well represented in Australia, the same zoologist, after examining some relics, successfully connected the plump waders, covered with light-gray feathers, which Leguat delighted in during his residence at Rodriguez. The same exact historian of the Mascarene Islands, as they once were, has also drawn the description of a very remarkable bird that haunted the marshes of Mauritius. "Numbers of certain birds are seen," says this traveller, "which they call giants, because their head rises six feet high. They are extremely high on the legs, and have a very long body, no larger than that of a goose. They are entirely white except one slightly red spot under the wing; they have the bill of a goose, but little more pointed, and their toes are very long and somewhat separated. They feed in marshy places, where dogs often surprise them, because they take some time to lift themselves from the ground. We saw one one day at Rodriguez, of such a size that we caught him by hand; this is the only one we observed there, which leads me to think he must have been driven thither by the wind, not being able to resist its force. The bird is tolerably good eating." Much unsuccessful conjecture as to what this "giant" might be was wasted, but at length the able Dutch naturalist Schlegel proved that the species was a kind of water-hen, quite peculiar in character, and in naming it (Leguatia gigantea) he meant to perpetuate the memory of the Protestant fugitive whose misfortune became a gain to science.
Nor is this yet all: the bones of a coot much larger than the European one have been found at Mauritius, as well as remains belonging to a parrot, contemporary with the dodo, of the size of a cockatoo; a fragment of another parrot, now extinct, has been found at Rodriguez. We are filled with astonishment in reflecting on what must formerly have been the richness of Nature in the Mascarene Islands; magnificent or wonderful birds were the embellishments of those regions lost as it were in ocean, and amid a world of weaker creatures they seemed to be the sovereigns.
Thirty years ago a discovery of the most unexpected kind produced a real sensation in the scientific world: the bones of birds of gigantic proportions had just been brought to light in the rivers of New Zealand. Nothing more was needed to stimulate men of science, who were exploring the country of the Maoris, with the desire of pushing their researches actively. They excavated in water-courses, marshes, and caves, and bones in considerable quantity were soon found. They obtained the entire skeleton of a bird approaching the giraffe in size, and those of several other species of the same group of smaller dimensions. These remarkable fragments coming into the hands of the eminent English naturalist, Richard Owen, were the subject of continued profound studies. The birds of New Zealand, extinct at an epoch doubtless very near our own, and yet known to us only by relics, have been called the Dinornis; the species of largest size has received the name of gigantic dinornis. The English explorers, finding the bones of dinornis in the beds or on the banks of rivers, often mixed with the bones of animals yet living in the country, or with those of man even, sometimes in cavities full of ashes and charcoal, where food had been prepared, were convinced that these relics came from individuals whose destruction was recent. The hope occurred to every one of finding yet living specimens either in the woods or the mountains, encouraging them to scour the country; but all researches till now have remained unsuccessful. The natives of New Zealand, asked a thousand times about the origin of these bones of enormous size found abundantly in so many localities, answered generally that the remains were those of a sort of bird known among them as the moa. The Maoris often declared that moas still existed in certain parts of the mountains; several pretended to have seen them, perhaps by way of boasting, for no precise fact occasioned the assertion to be taken as expressing the truth. Still, a vague tradition does seem to have been kept up among the native New-Zealanders with regard to enormous extinct birds.
The dinornis had marked relations with ostriches, and yet more so with cassowaries; in a word, they belonged, at least the greater part of them, to that family of running birds called Struthionids. The comparison of bones, rigorously made by Richard Owen, leaves no doubt on this point. New Zealand was formerly inhabited by numerous species of dinornis, perfectly distinct from each other, and varying much in their proportions. The gigantic dinornis we have mentioned might attain the height of more than eleven feet; other species were of the height of an ostrich, or less, and others had a much more massive shape and a slow gait, as is proved in the elephant-footed dinornis (Emeus elephantopus) by the thick, stout, enormous leg-bones. Each species inhabited a very limited region; the dinornis of North Island and that of Middle Island were not the same, and many of them seem to have lived in a very narrow space. Incapable of flying or swimming, these animals had very sedentary habits. Though it is proved that the great birds of New Zealand must for the most part present close resemblances to the cassowaries, the fact is less certain for some species.
We have observations, descriptions, and even sketches of the birds of the Mascarene Islands, derived from travelers of more or less learning; vague descriptions indeed, sketches often very imperfect, which yet have become precious. They give us at least a general idea of the look, the gait, the colors and habits of the lost animals. We have nothing like this as to the birds of the Austral Islands; some scattered bones, merely, have enabled us to reconstruct skeletons, and to frame comparisons with the nearest species existing in other countries. If the extinct creature differed but slightly in its forms from a well-known living species, the relations are easily established by that single comparison; the differences appear readily to the eye of a practised naturalist, an almost exact notion of the extinct being is gained, a sort of new life seems given to the creature whose mere relics have been seen. On the contrary, if the animal to be reconstructed had very peculiar characteristics, or in its general form proportions unknown elsewhere, it becomes impossible to reach a satisfactory result. We attempt to call the animated being before us in thought, but reflection tells us that the image cannot be a faithful one. This is probably the case with some of the extinct birds of New Zealand.
The question has been asked whether the hope of finding any living dinornis can be seriously entertained; on this point the affirmative and negative have both been maintained by zoologists, and especially by the explorers of New Zealand, who, better than any one else, can give reasons for their view. Dr. Thomson, who has made a special study of the spots and caves from which an immense number of bones of these great birds has been taken, is convinced that the famous moas of the Maoris were extinct at least two centuries ago, and will be looked for now in vain, and the proofs he brings in support of this opinion are serious enough to inspire fears lest his prophecy be correct. The taking possession of the New-Zealand Islands by the Maoris is generally assigned to the fifteenth century, and in countries not inhabited by mammals the early settlers must have hunted the great birds, that yield immense supplies of food, in an unsparing way. Under such circumstances how could the destruction of the dinornis have failed to be rapid and very quickly effected? Tasman, who discovered New Zealand in 1642, gained no information on the subject of the moas, although this fact is unimportant, since he maintained very slight relations with the natives; but their silence in intercourse with other navigators is more significant. Cook explored the country three times, established communication with the inhabitants, had conversations with the great chief Rauparaha, and thus must have known the popular traditions; yet nothing was ever said of gigantic birds. Dumont d'Urville, a sagacious man, anxious to investigate the life of the tribes he visited, studied the habits and customs of the Maoris; he fixed his attention on the plants and animals of New Zealand, and nothing led him to suspect the existence of the dinornis. According to Dr. Thomson, the native traditions on this subject are absolutely vague, and bear witness merely to the fact that there were moas living at the same time with the men of the race now inhabiting the country. No Maori of this day professes to have seen a moa moving about the woods or the plains. The state of complete preservation in which certain remains have been found must be attributed, the same author believes, merely to the peculiarities of the soil in which they were buried.
Now, those who do not give up the hope of finding some living dinornis, at some time, rely on several indications which perhaps must not be altogether disregarded. The Rev. Mr. Taylor affirms that the Maoris have traditions about the moa-hunts of their ancestors, and songs celebrating the hunters' exploits. Some travelers assert that they have had positive declarations from the natives of the presence of gigantic birds in the mountains; others declare that they have seen moas, but always ran away in terror at the sight of those strange animals; and others still suppose that they have seen tracks on the ground indicating the passage of an enormous bird. It is impossible to put much confidence in such stories, but observations on the condition of certain remains are much more striking. On the 16th of June, 1864, the Linnæan Society of London listened to the reading of a curious memoir by Mr. Allis, on the discovery of a nearly complete skeleton of the dinornis. This skeleton, found by some gold-hunters under a mound of sand near Dunedin, in the province of Otago, was in an astonishing state of preservation. Cartilages, tendons, and ligaments, were still adhering to the bones; a part of the skin, still undestroyed, contained quills of parted feathers like those of the emu, a kind of cassowary; the feather part of some of these remained. A very experienced zoologist judged that the animal had very probably not been dead more than ten or twelve years. A last point for reflection, as to the existence of dinornis at the present day, is given us by a distinguished naval officer, Commander Jouan, who has made a great number of interesting observations during his long voyages. This accomplished navigator tells us that there are solitudes in Middle Island into which the Maoris, and of course Europeans, have never penetrated, and the interior of North Island is little known beyond the valleys, the bottom of which is occupied by water-courses, which allow traveling by canoes, or at most by pirogues. Therefore, great birds might still have safe retreats. If the extinction of the dinornis is not utter, it seems certain at least as to most species of the group.
Other New-Zealand birds of moderate size seem to be threatened in their turn with complete destruction in the near future. The brown-feathered apteryx, with long, curved beak and stout feet, are very much pursued since the colonization. These walking-birds, having their vestiges of wings even smaller than ostriches and cassowaries, unable to escape by swift flight, live on the ground, and merely hide themselves in holes. Dogs trained to pursue them easily make them a prey, and the poor apteryx has already almost vanished from the inhabited country; their destruction will be complete with the advance of colonization. A singular parrot, of the size of a common fowl, the strigops peculiar to New Zealand, formerly quite common, but now extremely rare, is also doomed to perish. The strigops, a true parrot in all characteristics, an owl in its habits, dull in movement and plumage, is the only nocturnal species of the parrot family, and for that reason extremely interesting to zoologists. This bird, light-green in color, streaked with black lines, flies but little; it runs along the ground and takes refuge in holes; the object of constant attack by dogs and men, it exists nowhere but in solitudes as yet inaccessible. The rarity of the native birds becoming every day more marked in New Zealand, many persons have supposed that the rapid disappearance of the most remarkable species might be accounted for by a lowering of the temperature. They have forgotten that the apteryx and the strigops do very well in the present state of the country, wherever they are not disturbed.
Among the creatures whose recent disappearance is very probable without being actually certain, is reckoned a bird of Madagascar, exceeding the gigantic dinornis in size. The first important discovery of remains left by this lost species is quite recent. It was announced to the French Academy of Sciences by Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the 27th of January, 1851. Enormous eggs brought to France by Alfred Abadie, captain of a merchantman, excited amazement in every one, savants and ignorant alike. These eggs, six times as large as an ostrich's, and equal to 148 hen's-eggs, had a capacity of more than 13⁄4 gallon. Nothing more astonishing had ever been seen. From a few scattered bits of bones found in the same spot, Saint-Hilaire traced vestiges of the bird to which the eggs must be attributed, and designated the animal by the name of the Æpyornis maximus. The island of Madagascar presenting so extended a surface, unexplored in all parts, it was readily believed that the æpyornis might still be wandering over its vast solitudes, for in Madagascar, as in New Zealand, the natives speak of enormous birds as existing in the woods and mountains. Since the last exploration of the great African island, this seems an improbability. An intelligent young naturalist, Grandidier, made a voyage to Madagascar a few years ago; after gaining much information, he returned once more to the region which promised new discoveries. Quite lately, while making excavations in the midst of a marshy tract in Amboulisate, on the west coast of the island, Grandidier had the good fortune to collect some bones that seem to belong to the bird with those incomparable eggs. These fragments, it is true, are nothing more than two vertebræ, a thigh-bone, and a leg-bone; they enabled Milne-Edwards to demonstrate the relationship of the æpyornis with the ostrich, cassowary, and dinornis, and to prove the fact that the Madagascar bird, with a heavier body and stouter legs than any of the dinornis had, yet was not so high in stature as the largest species of New Zealand. Remains of the æpyornis of inferior size found in small quantity disclose, moreover, the existence of several species belonging to the same type, and inhabiting the same region at an area doubtless not very remote.
Every one in France and other parts of Europe is aware of the rapid decrease of birds. The larger kinds will, perhaps, be exterminated before a century passes. The bustard, which, in Buffon's time, was commonly enough found in the plains of Poitou and Champagne, is now extremely rare. The tétras, better known under the name of the great heath-cock, formerly abundant in our forests, is now found only in a few localities. Game so superb offers irresistible temptations to sportsmen.
In past ages the great auks (Alca impennis), fitted for swimming, but unable to fly, abounded on the shores of the arctic regions; they have been destroyed, annihilated. At a rather remote period they were common on all the coasts of Scandinavia, as in the Orkney and Faroe islands, and on the banks of Newfoundland; at a date nearer our own, they were still frequently seen in Lapland and Greenland; in the first years of the present century they only existed in some unfrequented northern islands. For thirty or forty years past, not a single one has been seen anywhere. The great auk figures stuffed in some museums of natural history; it is now an object of priceless value. A bird of the size of a goose, having the upper parts of its body velvet-black, its throat shaded with brown, and its lower parts white, the auk presents zoological marks of peculiar interest; it is intermediate between the lesser auk, a flying bird, which visits our shores in winter, and the penguins of southern lands. The great auk formerly furnished the people of the north with a large part of their food. Steenstrup has found thousands of bones of these birds, gnawed, splintered, and scratched, among the famous refuse-heaps of Denmark and Norway which he has dug into with great service to information for history. In many places, penguins made the principal food of the ancient Scandinavians; later in time, these birds and their eggs, gathered by thousands in the breaks and crevices of the rocks, were a resource for sailors, and of all that abundance there remains nothing, absolutely nothing. Birds, as we see, have already lost many members of their family.
The destruction of the great animals, effected by men within a few centuries, leads us to anticipate a serious impoverishment of Nature in a more or less remote future. The extinction of a multitude of species has taken place with deplorable rapidity in the Mascarene Islands; it is going on in many other parts of the globe. Singularly, wherever European civilization penetrates, devastation begins, and sooner or later is completed. The most industrious nations are the greatest ravagers. A few thousand years more, and the whole earth will present a uniform and wretched appearance.
The facts we have just recalled, as to beings exterminated by man, lead the mind to reflections on the primitive state of our present world. In the Mascarene Islands, in New Zealand, a special fauna, entirely different from that of the countries nearest them, proves that these islands have remained isolated since the appearance of the animals that inhabit or did till lately inhabit them. The presence of birds unable to fly, or to defend themselves effectually in countries where no dangerous enemies are to be feared, is the indication of a regular assignment of organism to determinate locations, for one who does not believe in indefinite transformations perceptible only to the imagination. Finally, in seeing animals wanting effective means of locomotion established in limited ranges, we are led to believe that each species at first lived only on some very small part of the globe, and that the varying distribution of individuals results chiefly from the enlargement of locomotive powers.