In an interview with Le Dimanche/L'Hebdo, paleontologist Julian Pender Hume explains the importance of this discovery, which could allow scientists to analyze DNA linked to the dodo, thus opening the way to a possible recreation of this extinct species.

Who are you, Julian Pender Hume?
I am a research associate at the Natural History Museum in London. I am a palaeontologist specialising in extinct birds. I am also an accomplished artist specialising in recreating the image of extinct birds.

Why are you in Mauritius?
On Tuesday, June 18, I came to catalog the material from the discoveries related to the dodo fossils found at Mare-la-Chaux.

Can you briefly explain to us what paleontology is?
I have always been interested in this field. Paleontology can be defined as the science of fossils. This scientific discipline has close links with geology, which is the dating of the remains of living organisms often based on information from stratigraphy and the analysis of the rocks that contain them.

Located at the crossroads of geology and biology, it contributes to the knowledge of the evolution of the living world, the relationships between species and with their environment, their spatial distribution and their migrations, the extinction of species and the the appearance of new ones, as well as the ecosystems in which ancient species lived.

Paleontology also studies the processes of fossilization, called taphonomy, of extinct living beings?
Yes. In addition to reconstructing extinct species, paleontology aims to study their origin and evolution over time. It allows us to understand the biodiversity and distribution of living beings on Earth before human intervention, which is called biogeography. In addition, it provides essential evidence to resolve two of the greatest scientific controversies of the 20th century: the evolution of living beings and continental drift.

Looking to the future, paleontology offers tools to analyze how climate change may affect the biosphere as a whole.

How does fossil evidence reveal how organisms change over time?
An example is the dodo which evolved from a small flying pigeon. Arrived in Mauritius and once here, in the absence of predators, it quickly became unable to fly.

What are the practical applications of paleontological research?
By understanding the fossil record, we can determine which species have gone extinct and potentially replace them with close relatives so that their ecological functions can be replaced.

What sparked your interest in the Mauritian dodo?
These are the programs of the British naturalist Gerald Durrell on Mauritius.

What excavations have you participated in so far to find dodo fossils in Mauritius?
During excavations at Mare-aux-Songes in 2006-2010, more than 50 dodo bones were found. Hundreds of dodo bones were found there during excavations in the 1860s. Then, 20 dodo bones were found in 2019, in Mare-la-Chaux.

Who were these dodo bones given to?
They were made available for study in Mauritius by international and local scientists.

What does this new discovery of dodo bones represent on this secret site?
On a personal and professional level, it is an extraordinary discovery. This adds a new site to my map of discovery of dodo bones in Mauritius. It will contribute to scientific research initiated for DNA analysis with a view to the possible recreation of this extinct bird.

This discovery will contribute to the scientific research underway with a view to the possible recreation of this extinct bird.”

What is the significance of this discovery for Maurice?
It would be great if the material could be used for DNA work to scientifically recreate the dodo.

What protocols do you follow to ensure that your work respects the cultural and historical significance of the fossils you discover in Mauritius?
I carry out my work following Mauritian law.

What are your future plans regarding the study of the dodo and other extinct species?
I hope to revisit some of the sites already studied in Mauritius to better understand the ecology of the dodo.

Do you work with scientists and researchers in Mauritius?
I work closely with Mauritian scientists and the Mauritius Institute – National Heritage Fund.

Can you share an interesting anecdote or memorable moment from your last dig?
While digging, a bird, the Mauritian Paradise Fly Catcher, came to watch us work. It was a great joy for the team.

What method was used to find the dodo bones at the site?
The system is quite simple. We removed layers of soil, about ten centimeters at a time. Then we sifted the soil to extract bones and snails. Since it was dark under the rocks, we used torches as a light source.

When did the excavations take place?
The excavations took place on Friday 21st, Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd June. We first examined the site to determine the best areas to explore. Then we began searching in the afternoon.

We found dodo bones mainly on June 21. We had some dodo leg bones and a few toe bones, all in very good condition, as well as a few broken pieces of turtle shell.

Any specific details about these finds?
Several complete and partial bones were found. They are easily recognized as dodo bones by their size and bony characteristics. Since they haven't been in the water, more DNA is preserved.

Can you explain the science behind this?
Water leaches DNA over time. Since the bones are in a dry area, they are more likely to contain preserved DNA.

After informing the owners of the secret site, what about the management of this discovery?
We informed the owners. They were very interested in our find but at this stage they prefer that the location of the site not be revealed. Then the bones discovered were bagged and left to dry.

Did they agree that you take the bones discovered to La Vanille Nature Park for conservation?
Yes, as a temporary measure pending a final decision. The bones are safe there.

What conservation measures were taken for the discovered bones and why is this important?
So that they do not degrade over time, it is essential to keep the bones found in a dry and dehumidified environment.

Has the Colossal Biosciences team, who are currently shooting a film in Mauritius, been informed?
Yes. Colossal Biosciences is a company involved in the de-extinction of the dodo which collaborates with the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation. She has already tested preserved specimens. To move forward with this research, authorizations from the Mauritian authorities and land owners are necessary. Their chief scientist came to see us following our discovery. She was impressed by the quality of the bones and thinks there is a good chance the material contains recoverable DNA.

What are the future implications?
According to Mauritian law, the equipment belongs to the landowners. There are legal restrictions on export except for authorized scientific research.

As a scientist, what do you think this discovery could mean for Maurice?
Sleeping equipment is, in reality, not that rare. There are hundreds of dodo bones in museums around the world, including here at the Mauritius Institute. But it's a new site and the bones are in good condition.

Although we can never have a real dodo, can you explain what a “dodo-like” creature is?
It would be a kind of large flightless pigeon with perhaps a hooked beak like that of the dodo. But it wouldn't exactly look like a dodo.

If the owners of the bones do not agree to entrust them to research, how significant would this loss be?
As mentioned, there are plenty of dodo bones available for research. It would be a shame, but not the end of the world.

Why is resurrecting the dodo considered a major scientific breakthrough?
The dodo is a symbol of extinction, so there is a lot of romance and excitement about it. But scientists are also working on woolly mammoths, Tasmanian tigers and would like to work on the Rodrigues solitaire to name a few of their targets.

How can the public get involved or support paleontological research?
The first step is to get involved in protecting native biodiversity. This can be done by volunteering with groups that do this work. Then, as your interest grows and you become known, your involvement can increase.

The final word ?
Although the dodo is an icon of extinction, the approach of the Mauritian authorities is to learn from the past to prevent this from happening again. I'm always excited to help with this process. Ultimately, I love being in Mauritius and Rodrigues telling the global scientific community about your wonderful islands.

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