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Saturday October 24, 2009

All About a Goat

There’s a frisson of excitement in Soller, my local rural town, and it’s all thanks to a dead goat. One hundred years ago, an eccentric Edwardian scientist named Dorothea Bate from the Natural History Museum in London, came to rugged and tourist-free Majorca and found, in the deep recesses of a sea cave, the oddly shaped cranium and jaw bone of a prehistoric creature. With a skip in her step she rushed back to London and in September 1909 the extinct little creature was officially named Myotragus, ‘rodent goat’ from the Greek.

For nearly 5 million years, Myotragus was an exclusive species to Majorca and its sister island, Menorca, and to this day scientists worldwide still debate how it adapted to its environment, surviving largely on a diet of box, a hallucinogenic plant, until Neolithic man rowed ashore in about 3000 BC and swiftly drove the poor little goat to extinction.

When the Dodo suffered a similar fate in Mauritius in the 17th century, there was a huge hullabaloo and the strange bird developed cult status spawning such catch phrases as, Dead as a Dodo. In comparison Myotragus fared dismally. For one thing rodents, even if part goat, have little appeal unless you consider Michael Jackson singing lovingly about his pet rat, Ben. There’s no record of Neolithic settlers in Mallorca writing odes or eulogies to Myotragus and try as we might, phrases such as, Myopic as a Myotragus, simply won’t roll off the tongue. If Dorothea had come up with a name a little less classically Greek, sporting fewer than four syllables, Myotragus might now be enjoying the same celebrity as its two syllable Mauritian cousin, the Dodo.

This week at the Balearic natural history museum in Soller, a large and bony reconstruction of Myotragus has just arrived from its counterpart in Rotterdam where it was lovingly created, and Mallorcan friends are suddenly feeling a pinch of national pride. The mayor of Soller, British Consul, tourism minister, local VIPs and Spanish press will soon gather for the unveiling of this scientific phenomenon and I too shall whoop and clap loudly with the rest of them. One could say that in the discovery of Myotragus, Anglo-Spanish scientific relations were born, something that even the illustrious Dodo can’t deny.
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