MASCARENE PARROT | ONLY FOUND IN MASCARENE ISLAND

MASCARENE PARROT | ONLY FOUND IN MASCARENE ISLAND

The Mascarene parrot, also known as the mascarin, is a parrot species that was once only found on the Mascarene Island of Réunion in the western Indian Ocean. The taxonomic affiliations of this species have been a point of contention; it has been classified as either Psittaculini parrots or vasa parrots in the past, with the most recent genetic analysis favoring the former.

The Mascarene parrot was first documented in 1674, and live specimens were later transported to Europe, where they were kept in captivity. In 1771, the species was formally described. Today, just two stuffed specimens exist: one in Paris and the other in Vienna. The Mascarene parrot’s extinction date and cause are unknown. Because the most recent account, from 1834, is suspect, it’s safe to assume that the species went extinct before 1800, and possibly even before that.

The Mascarene parrot had a length of 35 cm (14 in). The wing measured 211 millimeters (8.3 inches), the tail 144–152 millimeters (5.7–6.0 inches), the culmen 32–36 millimeters (1.3–1.4 inches), and the tarsus 22–24 millimeters (0.87–0.94 inches). It had a huge red bill and tail feathers that were relatively long and rounded. On the front of the head was a black velvet-like facial mask. There are significant inconsistencies in how the color of the body, wings, tail feathers, and head has been described and shown throughout history. Dubois classified living specimens as “petit-gris” in 1674, which is the color of the red squirrel’s dark phase. 

The tops of the head and neck are a transparent (ash) grey color. Very-dark (ash) grey back, rump, underparts of neck, breast, belly, sides, legs, scapular feathers, top coverts of tail. The same-colored wing feathers. The tail is made up of 12 feathers, two of which are very dark (ash) grey. The lateral ones are all the same color, with the exception of a small white spot at the base. The eyes are encircled by a brilliant red, bare skin. Iris red, pupil black. The nostrils are located at the base of the upper half of the beak, which is likewise surrounded by a red bare skin.

Based on stuffed specimens, several following authors described the bird’s body as brown and its head as bluish lilac, and this has become the “orthodox image” of the species. These colors were never used to characterize live birds. This coloration, according to Hume, is a product of the taxidermy specimens’ age and exposure to light, which can change grey and black to brown. An abnormal specimen has likewise gone from grey to brown as a result of such a change.  The coloration of the two current Mascarene parrot specimens also differs. The head of the Paris specimen is greyish blue, with a brown body that is paler on the underside. In an effort at fumigation in the 1790s, sulphuric acid badly destroyed its tail and wing feathers.

A plate by French engraver François-Nicolas Martinet in Buffon’s 1779 Histoire Naturelle Des Oiseaux, the earliest coloured representation of this species, has added to the confusion concerning the Mascarene parrot’s coloration. It depicts the bird as brown with a purplish head, and the intensity of these colors varies greatly between copies, owing to the fact that it was hand-colored by a number of different artists who worked at Martinet’s workshop. The body color varies from chestnut brown to greyish chocolate, the tail color varies from light grey to blackish grey-brown, and the head color varies from blue grey to dove-grey in these clones. Two dark middle tail feathers with white bases are also missing from the plate, a detail described by Brisson and duplicated by following artists. The Paris specimen may have inspired Martinet’s image and Buffon’s description.

In the wild, nothing is known about the Mascarene parrot. It was most likely not a specialized feeder because numerous specimens were kept alive in captivity. The Vienna specimen’s partial whiteness could have been caused by a lack of food during a long period in confinement; its primary wing feathers were trimmed, indicating it was imprisoned. The Vienna specimen may not have obtained enough of the amino acid tyrosine from its food, which it would have needed for melanin formation, because little was known about parrot diet in the 1700s. Due to the existence of the pigment psittacin in other parrots, this would have resulted in orange instead of white coloration in the afflicted feathers, but Coracopsis and Mascarene parrots are the only parrots that lack this pigment. At times, the specimen has been described as “partially albinistic,” despite the fact that real albinism (absence of the enzyme tyrosinase) can never be partial.

According to a 17th-century story by English adventurer Peter Mundy who mentioned “russet parrots,” the Mascarene parrot may have formerly colonized Mauritius. This is a possibility because Réunion and Mauritius share several animal species, but no fossil evidence has been found. After the entrance of man and the ensuing damage of the island’s ecosystem, many other endemic species of Réunion feel extinct. The hoopoe starling, Réunion ibis, Réunion parakeet, Mascarene grey parakeet, Réunion swamphen, Réunion owl, Réunion night heron, and Réunion pink pigeon were all recently extinct birds that existed alongside the Mascarene parrot.

The Réunion gigantic tortoise and an unnamed Leiolopisma skink are two extinct reptiles from Réunion. On Réunion and Mauritius, the small Mauritian flying fox, and the snail Tropidophora carinata once thrived, but both have since perished. The Réunion gigantic tortoise and an unnamed Leiolopisma skink are examples of extinct Réunion reptiles. The little Mauritian flying fox and the snail Tropidophora carinata were once found on both Réunion and Mauritius but have now vanished.

Only the echo parakeet of Mauritius has survived among the eight or so parrot species unique to the Mascarenes. The others most likely went extinct as a result of a combination of overhunting and deforestation. The reason and date of the Mascarene parrot’s extinction are unknown. Carl Wilhelm Hahn, a German biologist, gave an account of a live Mascarene parrot in the possession of King Maximilian I Joseph of Bavaria in 1834. The bird had to be rather old at the time, and Hahn said that a companion illustration was created after it. The 1834 account is accepted by the IUCN Red List as the last reference of a live specimen.

The authenticity of Hahn’s assertion was called into question as early as 1876, and the artwork looks to be plagiarized from a plate by François-Nicolas Martinet published at least 50 years before. When King Maximilian died in 1825, his collection was auctioned off, but there was no mention of the Mascarene parrot in the species list. Hahn did not specify when he first observed the bird, which could have been much before 1834. Because Martinet’s image was copied and no mounted specimen exists, Hahn’s account is suspect. He could have gotten his information from other sources or even rumor.

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