Reunion is a marvellous island for plants of all kinds, from tree ferns to tropical fruits, blooming trees and shrubs, amazing vines and stunning palms but when it comes to animals it is on the poor side. Let us see anyway what flies and crawls here.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 13, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
We will start with the early birds, not the neighbour's rooster which wakes you up at dawn but free birds flying here and there. As many people know, Reunion and Mauritius both were home for the dodo bird (Threskiornis solitarius on Reunion and Raphus cucullatus on Mauritius), a wingless clumsy bird which felt prey to the first sailors to set foot on the islands, they were simply clubbed dead as they were not even afraid of men...so those are only memories just like parrots and other big edible birds. The ones commonly seen today in the garden are exotic birds, which either flew or were blown here by cyclones or have been brought as cage birds and escaped in the wild. As in many places all over the world, the common sparrow (Passer domesticus) was introduced in 1850 and is to be found on the whole island, usually close to houses and people, they behave like any sparrow, familiar and always ready for some left over rice or bread. A more exotic species, Ploceus cucullatus spilonotus locally known as ‘bélier' or ‘bellier' and Village Weaver in English, was imported from South Africa and has spread very well. The adults are 17cm long, they have a nice yellow colour and build intricate nests, round with an opening at the bottom. Those birds like to congregate and will build large numbers of nest in bamboos or palm trees and become very noisy when people or potentially dangerous animals get close. The males are the ones which build the nests, then the females make sure they are strong enough by gripping them with there feet and shaking as much as possible to see if they hold, if ever they don't the builder will not be able to mate. They feed mostly on seeds, enjoying corns in the fields and also fruits and will feed the youngsters with insects. Another colourful bird is the ‘cardinal' or ‘foudi', Foudia madagascariensis, which as you may easily find out originates from nearby Madagascar. It is not known since how long it has settled on the island. During mating period (September to May) the males turn a bright red while they are greenish the rest of the year. They feed on seeds and insects. Now, a nice singer, the ‘bulbul orphée' or ‘merle Maurice', in English red-whiskered bulbul (Pyctonotus jocosus) originates from India and South-East Asia, from where it was exported to Mauritius and from Mauritius to Reunion in 1972 as caged bird. It soon escaped and is now a very common sight, some 20cm long, with a black head and straight crest, a red dot under the eye, the back, wings and tail are brown while the belly is white. It feeds on seeds, insects, fruits and young birds in their nests. Now a handsome bird which is most often heard before seen as it is all white, the ‘paille-en-queue' or white-tailed tropicbird (Phaeton lepturus) is a sea bird, which will fly inland, following the ravines where it will have its nest. It is up to 80 cm long, half of this length taken by the two long tail-feathers. It feeds on small fishes that it is able to spot from large distances. Another ravines roamer but a feared one is the ‘papangue' or Reunion marsh-harrier (Circus maillardi maillardi). This large bird of prey up to 50cm long has a dark brown head and back with white strips on the neck, white throat and chest with black stripes, yellow beak and legs. This is a species endemic to Reunion, it is most often found in higher areas, hunting by flying low or just a few meters above tree-tops, it will feed on small mammals, birds, lizards, frogs, insects and may grab a pigeon or chicken. There of course more birds on the island including several endemic ones but they live either in the forest or on the coast and are not to be seen in my garden...
Now, back to the ground to see what we have got there. Watch your steps or you may get stuck in one of those large spider webs made by the ‘bibe', Nephila nigra or Nephila inaurata which can become quite large for the female (say ten cm from leg to leg) while the male is ridiculously tiny. They build huge webs between trees or electric wires and have fantastic shiny colours, black bodies with yellow variegations and stripped legs, black and yellow. The webs are made of very strong thread, I even once had to release a small willow, which had caught its wing and could not get free. Though impressive those spiders are not venomous. The next insect is a more friendly looking, the monarch butterfly, Danaus chrysippus and Danaus plexippus are known in the tropics and can be attracted in any garden if you grow Asclepias currassavica, a nice orange-flowered bush which is used as food by the caterpillars, so adults will come and lay eggs as soon as they spot the leaves. This other wonderful butterfly, Papilio phorbanta, is endemic to Reunion, the female is brown and the male black with large blue or green spots, a flying jewel which larvae feed on citrus.
One of the very few mammals found on Reunion can also be seen at sunset or at night foraging the garden looking for grubs, roots, insects. The ‘tangue' (Tenrec ecaudatus) is endemic to Madagascar but was probably brought long time ago as it is hunted and eaten. It is a close relative of the hedgehog and can reach one or two kilo in weight.
A more common sight is Calotes versicolor, the ‘agame' often called here ‘caméléon' though it is not a chameleon but a lizard, known in English as the crested tree lizard or garden fence lizard. The one found on Reunion came originally from Java, accidentally introduced with sugar cane cuttings at the end of 19th century. It can reach 20 to 40cm long and spends the day bathing in the sun and hunting for insects, on the ground or in bushes and trees.
And now the most colourful of our garden inhabitants, also coming from Madagascar and now found in many places on the coast of Reunion and further up in summer, the amazing Chamaeleo pardalis, the chameleon known locally as ‘endormi' which means asleep for it is a rather slow animal. Here again the female is a dark shade of brown and smaller than the male which can reach 50cm long and is a bright green with spots of white, red, blue and some yellow markings on the head. It features incredible eyes set on cone-like appendices which allows him to see at 360°, a very nice thing when you rely on catching insects for living. It also has opposed fingers so as to firmly grab branches and twigs of trees where he spends most of his time, using the prehensile tail as extra hand. The insect catching device is a long tongue with a stocky end he is able to throw accurately at any appetizing bug...And of course he is well known for its ability at changing colours in order to match its environment so you need good eyes to spot him.
I hope you enjoy this small garden tour, all those little guys live harmoniously here and help to keep a natural balance so pest control is reduced to eating wasps larvae as stated in a previous article...
I have to thank here my friend François Vanderschricke who gave me some pictures for this article (Béllier bird, lizard, caterpilar and chrysalid) as well as pics for the previous article on Mayotte, thanks mate!
About Jean-Jacques Segalen
I am a Parisian born professional horticulturist specialized in tropical seeds producing, living on Reunion island (just between Mauritius and Madagascar) since 20 years . I spend a lot of time gathering seeds in the wild, the ones I do not grow that is. Also a dedicated Tai-Chi practitioner and fully certified arborist-tree surgeon
Just released my first book on tropical plants and fruits, check it at http://www.barbadine.com/pages/livrejjGB.html