Mascarene Parrot

Mascarene Parrot
Mascarene Parrot
Painting by John Gerrard Keulemans, 1907
Conservation status
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Aves
Order: Psittaciformes
Family: Psittacidae
Subfamily: Psittacinae
Genus: Mascarinus
Lesson, 1831
Species: M. mascarinus
Binomial name
Mascarinus mascarinus
(Linnaeus, 1771)

see text

The Mascarene Parrot (Mascarinus mascarinus or Coracopsis mascarinus) is an extinct species of parrot known from bones, specimens and descriptions to have occurred in the Mascarene island of Réunion, and possibly Mauritius. The bird was first described by Dubois in 1674. During the latter half of the 18th century, a number of birds were exported alive to France and kept in captivity; the species was described after these examples came to the attention of the taxonomists of that time, like Brisson, Linnaeus and Buffon. Three stuffed specimens were preserved at that time. Today, two remain, accompanied by a number of bones found later. One, the sole remaining of the three extant around 1800, is in the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris, the other, dated 1806 and of unknown provenance, in the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. The affinity of this species to other Indian Ocean island species has been debated for a long time but was recently resolved using ancient DNA-techniques that placed the species within the genus Coracopsis.



Illustration by François-Nicolas Martinet, 1779
Illustration by Barraband from 1801

The Mascarene Parrot was a medium-sized bird, about as large as an Eclectus Parrot and of a similar shape, although less heavyset and with a longer tail. It was dark greyish brown on the upperside, lighter on the underside. The bases of the tail feathers were white, and the head was colored a medium lavender grey. A ring of velvet-like short black feathers surrounded the bill, which was brilliant red. The feet were reddish brown.

The "evidence" for this bird's former existence on Mauritius rests on the testimony of Peter Mundy, who saw "russett parratts" in 1638, and Johann Christian Hoffmann, who saw "red crows with recurved beaks and blue heads" called Indiaensche ravens ("Indian Crows") in the early 1670s. An illustration in the report on van Neck's 1598 voyage refers to "Indian crows" twice the size of parakeets and being two- or three-colored, but the animal depicted does not agree well with the Mascarene Parrot. All these reports are often taken to argue that the Broad-billed Parrot was multicolored and that Lophopsittacus bensoni was a valid species that was the "grey parrots" also mentioned by the early travellers. However, the Broad-billed parrot was in all likelihood flightless and thus it seems that the above-mentioned reports are more consistent with Mascarinus mascarinus. Hoffman states that the birds flew only "with difficulty", though, whereas the wing bones of the Mascarene Parrot does not suggest a reduction in flying ability. The sternum of the bird is only insufficiently known and thus it may be that the species flew badly. This, on the other hand, is in disagreement with the theory that the same taxon occurred on both islands, although Hoffman may have referred to a general unwillingness to fly until pressed, which was common for the unwary birds of the Mascarenes. Most strongly against the former existence of this species on Mauritius, however, weighs the fact that no skeletal material has turned up in the extensive collections of subfossil bones recovered to date; the fossil record of Mauritius is the most complete of the Mascarene Islands.


By 1800, the captive birds seem to have died, except one alleged specimen in the possession of Ludwig I of Bavaria. Bory de Saint-Vincent does not mention the bird in his description of animals encountered on Réunion in 1801, and it seems to have gone extinct in the wild by then. The Bavarian bird was only ever mentioned by Carl Wilhelm Hahn who published his account and a painting of the bird in 1834 or 1835. This late date and the fact that his illustration seems plagiarized from a painting by François-Nicolas Martinet from 1779 by, has made some doubt the authenticity of his account, but he did not mention the date in which he actually saw the bird, and it could had happened been long before.[1][2] The corpse seems to have been discarded; Hahn's depiction was, if true, the last record of the species being alive. If the species had existed on Mauritius at all, it must have disappeared at a much earlier date; Hoffman's record is the last that would agree with this species, and while the 18th century reports, vague as they are, could refer to M. mascarinus too, they most likely describe parrots that had been introduced and gone feral at that time. The reason why the species should persist on Réunion markedly longer than on Mauritius, in face of the same threats faced by it on both islands, are another puzzling aspect of the species' history.


Illustration of the head and feet

The species was originally judged to be closely related to the Afrotropical parrots, especially the genus Coracopsis due to its distribution and the absence of green coloration. This close relationship has been confirmed recently using ancient-DNA techniques, which places the species in between the various subspecies of Coracopsis nigra.[3]

In the past, however, certain characteristics such as the feathered lores and the red beak did not fit with this assignment and various other affinities have been proposed. Study of the bones seems to suggest that the bird was, like the other Mascarene parrots and paralleling the dodo and Rodrigues Solitaire, an offshoot of the Paleotropical radiation of parrots, the tribe Psittaculini; many of its morphological aspects remind of an Eclectus or Tanygnathus parrot. But the bird's closest relatives, judging from anatomical evidence, may indeed be the Psittacula parakeets. The extinct Mascarene genera of parrots thus seem to form a distinct group in the Psittaculini clade that evolved during the widening of the western Indian Ocean simultaneously to the didine pigeons and finally wound up on the Mascarenes.

Linnaeus had the habit of abbreviating species names. Thus, his original description is of Psittacus mascarin., dropping the ending -us. Sometimes, the scientific name is thus written Psittacus mascarin, but that is neither in agreement with the current standard of nomenclature nor with the one applied by Linné himself. Nonetheless, the uncertainties about the bird's relationships and distribution - many early authors assuming it came from Madagascar - have led to a lengthy assembly of synonyms:


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ S. Kundu, C.G. Jones, R.P. Prys-Jones & J.J. Groombridge (In Press) The evolution of the Indian Ocean parrots (Psittaciformes): Extinction, adaptive radiation and eustacy. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution
  • BirdLife International (2004). Mascarinus mascarinus. 2006. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2006. Retrieved on 23 Jun 2006. Database entry includes justification for why this species is extinct.
  • Linnaeus, Carolus (1771): [Description of Mascarinus mascarinus] In: Mantissa plantarum. Regni Animalis Appendix., p. 524. [In Latin]

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