Bitten by a Malaysian Flying Fox Bat by Bill LaRocque
“Bats are all wings and never walk on the ground: the opposite of flightless birds.” N. Audubon, 1803.
The Dodos are believed to have only inhabited the Island of Mauritius in the western region of the Indian Ocean. The species disappeared during the mid-to-late 17th century from habitat destruction, hunting, and predators introduced by Dutch and Portuguese sailors. It is an often-cited example of modern extinction.
Growing up on a poultry (not chicken, please) farm near Cape Cod, I was well acquainted with flightless birds. In high school I learned about large ostrich-like birds called Rheas that inhabited much of South America. They and other species found in New Zealand, Australia, and Indonesia have all been largely eradicated by lazy, hungry human hunters. On a trip to South Africa after college I saw my first wild penguins and lost my heart to these little birds that fly underwater.
Eventually, I took my studies all the way to a doctorate in avian biology, ecology, evolution and extinction. Mornings I listen to the chorus of birds outside my window and wonder about all those birds we’ve lost. Many believe we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of birds and mammals. In the last 600 years (things move slowly geologically) almost 200 species of birds have gone extinct. Around 90 percent of those losses can be attributed to one species, ours. At academic gatherings, bird watchers avoid me. They never want to hear about flightless emu-like, clawed, Cassowaries that have been known to kill human beings. Payback for the Dodos?
Fast forward fourteen years after academia. I was working at National Geographic in Washington, DC.when we received two pictures of what might be the remains of large flightless birds. They were reportedly taken on a beach on one of the Little Nicobar Islands just west of Malaysia in the northeastern region of the Indian Ocean. Only the two photographs were available and the carcasses had disappeared. Could they be related to the dodos, now extinct from a small island across a vast ocean over 3,000 miles away? Is that possible?
The dodos were evolutionary descendants of a spotted pigeon-like bird that populated the eastern Indian ocean and Malaysia. Following ocean currents they must have migrated west as far as the Mauritius islands near Mozambique. There, nearly 50 million years ago, they found an island that was so well suited for them that they slowly evolved into flightless birds that flourished in the fruit and nut rich forests, near beaches alive with small crustaceans and, best of all, with no natural enemies, until 350 years ago.
What if other descendants of the same spotted pigeon-like birds found similar habitats around Malaysia and evolved similarly to the dodo? The grainy photographs of two of the carcasses showed large turkey-sized, stunted-winged birds with heavy curved upper mandibles.similar to the Dodos on Mauritius. No current known species fit the description. Certainly nothing like that at the eastern end of the Indian Ocean. Was this evidence I needed? Could DNA samples be used in experimental efforts to regrow the Dodo species? I was thrilled about the news and the possibility of a fabulous field trip to the other side of our planet.
Back in my DC condo I was all over Google trying to visualize the little Nicobar islands. As I explained the fascinating possibilities to my roommate, her eyelids relaxed over her moist glazed eyes. “When do you leave?” she finally asked.
Only our research group at National Geographic and a French group, from Sorbonne Université, had been notified. It was headed by Pierre Chapelle, who I’d met years ago. He was already working in the Mauritius Islands. The race was on to get authorization for a month-long field trip for myself and an assistant to travel to Nicobar.
With our budget approved, bags of equipment packed, visas obtained, malaria, typhus and yellow fever shots, we were ready to go. 38 hours after leaving Dulles, and two stops later, we landed at 2AM in Kuala Lumpur. Exhausted, we slept for almost a day and a half as our body clocks tried to reset to the new longitude. Mostly sunny, hot and muggy except for ocean breezes, it was somehow different from hazy, hot and muggy Washington, DC. A local travel agent was able to book us on a two-hop trip east to Banda Aceh across the Malacca Strait where we were able to squeeze onto a Sumatran mail and supply boat to the Nicobar Islands. We spent most of our time on deck enjoying the lush green island silhouettes, green-blue water and sociable dolphins following the bow wake of our light cruiser. After a two day trip we finally joined the Pierre and French research team already on Little Nicobar.
The French group were camped in the highlands at the edge of a tropical forest about three kilometers from the beach. They were all happy to share some of our Kentucky bourbon and Doritos. Their English was much better than our high school French which improved while poring over our notes and photos, sipping our bourbon, and pouring some budget Nuit St. George red and unchilled Chardonnay, brought by Pierre. Then, about dusk, it happened. First, we heard a strange high pitched barking sound..
“Really big bats. Don’t worry, zey only eat fruit and berries, but sometimes zey are attracted to zee sound of our voices, AND zey can see! Fais attention.” said Pierre.
“ Silencieux! Zey vill be soon disparu.” Some of the bats had wing spans of over one meter.
Then, out of the near darkness I heard and felt leather-like wings flapping. Suddenly there was a large winged, puppy-sized animal on my shoulder.
Was it trying to eat my ear? I screamed.
Only Pierre’s french army knife with its multiple corkscrews was handy. I grabbed it and slashed where I thought the beast was. It was gone.
Only surface scratches — from the bats or the corkscrew? Doesn’t matter. Pierre soaked his handkerchief with some leftover Chardonnay and wiped my neck wounds. Most everyone was laughing. Now, finally, I thought, I had a good story to tell at those faculty dinner parties, when I get invited.
After 11 more days of searching for surviving dodo ancestors, we gave up. My “red scratches of courage” were nearly gone. No scars. Sigh.
Pierre and the French team returned to their “research” in Mauritius. I made it back to Washington, DC with a new French Army knife, courtesy of Pierre, and material for an exciting YouTube video that my roommate only watched once.
Note, I am indebted to Michael Crawford (NYer cartoonist, and jazz lover (1945- 2016) for the concept and image of the French Army knife.