Share it! Science : Integrated Lesson Plan Opportunities: Historical Accounts Inform Modern Scientists about Ill-Tempered Parrots and Warty Pigeons

Monday, May 11, 2015

Integrated Lesson Plan Opportunities: Historical Accounts Inform Modern Scientists about Ill-Tempered Parrots and Warty Pigeons

The raven parrot and the dodo.
By Joris Joostensz Laerle (attributed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Strickland, H.E. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
     Learning about extinct and endangered species is a great way to integrate history, social studies and science. When you hear the word extinct, visions of giant dinosaurs probably pop into your head. But the thunder lizards are certainly not the only creatures that cease to roam the Earth. In most cases we are left to wonder and hypothesize about these plants and animals based on the fossils and remnants left behind, but for more recent extinctions we sometimes come across historical accounts that can fill in the gaps in our knowledge.
     Mauritius is an island nation off the southeastern coast of Africa and was the home of the infamous dodo bird. Not far from Madagascar, Mauritius is also known for its interesting array of flora and fauna. Throughout history Mauritius has been visited and settled by a wide array of peoples, its location making it an important part of trade routes, once known as the "star and key" to the Indian Ocean.
     When travelers, and later, settlers, came to the island they found the large, flightless dodo an easy and hearty (sometimes up to 50 lbs!) food source. European settlers brought other species like rats and pigs that enjoyed eating dodo eggs. Before long, this descendent of the pigeon was completely wiped out. Turns out the dodo wasn't the only strange new species settlers came across on Mauritius Island.
     Although we have many historical accounts of the interesting animals on Mauritius Island, few of them are very descriptive beyond how easy the creature was to catch and whether or not it was good to eat. A document has been discovered in the Netherlands National Archive in The Hague that sheds more light on the natural history of the creatures settlers discovered on the island.
     In 1666 a Dutch soldier named Johannes Pretorius was sent to the island to check on a Dutch East India Company settlement that had not been heard from. He found the settlement alive and well and for a time took on the role of "comforter of the sick", historically a highly regarded position. Several years later Pretorius penned his report on the wildlife of the island while he was aboard a ship to another settlement in Cape Peninsula, South Africa. It is unknown why he wrote this report, but the style of it indicates he was tasked with reviewing the feasibility of Mauritius being a long-term settlement.
The raven parrot. By Joris Joostensz Laerle (attributed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
   The report covers all sorts of animals, but the ones that have been most interesting to scientists piecing together this natural history are those of several other peculiar birds that are now extinct. One was the flightless, ill-tempered raven parrot. Pretorius's account indicates that this particular bird was physiologically able to fly, but did not exhibit flying behavior. The parrot would not eat in captivity and in general was a force to be reckoned with. Pretorius's descriptions of the bird lead us to rethink our previous understanding of its coloration, rather than just having a dull body with a blue head and reddish beak, it is now thought that it was a very colorful, mostly red bird.

     Amongst the other birds described was the red rail, which is often confused with the dodo in historical accounts. This was another flightless bird that was noted as being unintelligent, and did not survive long once humans and other introduced species entered the scene. The extinct Mauritius blue pigeon has been depicted in modern illustrations as a bird with a smooth beak, which always puzzled modern scientists. According to Pretorius, the blue pigeon had a warty face much like all it's other relatives!
     For me, the most compelling aspect of finding this document from a teaching standpoint is how writing accurate observations can more easily and accurately inform other scientists. Teaching communication and detail-oriented note-taking is so important in science lessons. If everyone made their discoveries in a bubble without ever sharing the details we would never get anywhere. So, whether the record-keeping was happening in 1669 on a ship off the coast of Africa, or a science classroom in 2015, writing notes and making observations that are accurately communicated with others is of the utmost importance.
     This Friday, May 15th is Endangered Species Day. With a little planning and imagination the use of historical documents of extinct animals could be an interesting science activity. How might people have done things differently if they could have predicted the future? How has society and our food system changed in that we no longer depend on eating wild game? What measures are in place now to prevent future animal and plant extinctions? There are so many opportunities for integrating subjects to learn about our history with the plants and animals that inhabit Earth. Check out the links below for some ideas on using endangered species or extinct animals as science topics.
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