Mid-Holocene (4200 kyr BP) mass mortalities in Mauritius (Mascarenes): Insular vertebrates resilient to climatic extremes but vulnerable to human impact

Kenneth F. Rijsdijk*, Jens Zinke, Perry G. B. de Louw, Julian P. Hume, Hans (J) van der Plicht, Henry Hooghiemstra, Hanneke J. M. Meijer, Hubert B. Vonhof, Nick Porch, F. B. Vincent Florens, Claudia Baider, Bas van Geel, Joost Brinkkemper, Tamara Vernimmen, Anwar Janoo

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

31 Citations (Scopus)


In the light of the currently increasing drought frequency and water scarcity on oceanic islands, it is crucial for the conservation of threatened insular vertebrates to assess how they will be affected. A 4000 yr old fossil assemblage in the Mare Aux Songes (MAS), southwest Mauritius, Mascarene Islands, contains bones of 100000+ individual vertebrates, dominated by two species of giant tortoises Cylindraspis triserrata and C. inepta, the dodo Raphus cucullatus, and 20 other vertebrate species (Rijsdijk, Hume, Bunnik, Florens, Baider, Shapiro et al. (2009) Mid-Holocene vertebrate bone Concentration-Lagerstatte on oceanic island Mauritius provides a window into the ecosystem of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus). Quaternary Science Reviews 28: 14-24). Nine radiocarbon dates of bones statistically overlap and suggest mass mortality occurred between 4235 and 4100 cal. yr BP. The mortality period coincides with a widely recognized megadrought event. Our multidisciplinary investigations combining geological, paleontological and hydrological evidence suggests the lake was located in a dry coastal setting and had desiccated during this period. Oxygen isotope data from a Uranium-series dated stalagmite from Rodrigues, an island 560 km east of Mauritius, supports this scenario by showing frequently alternating dry and wet periods lasting for decades between 4122 and 2260 cal. yr BP. An extreme drought resulted in falling water-tables at MAS and elsewhere on the island, perhaps deprived these insular vertebrates of fresh water, which led to natural mass mortalities and possibly to extirpations. In spite of these events, all insular species survived until at least the seventeenth century, confirming their resistance to climatic extremes. Despite this, the generally exponential increase of combined human impacts on islands including loss of geodiversity, habitats, and stocks of fresh water, there will be less environmental safe-haven options for insular endemic and native vertebrates during future megadrought conditions; and therefore will be more prone to extinction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1179-1194
Number of pages16
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Dec-2011


  • climate change
  • dodo
  • insular vertebrates
  • mass mortality
  • megadrought
  • palaeoecology
  • speleothems
  • volcanic islands


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