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- This article is about the extinct bird. See also Dodo (disambiguation)
The Mauritius Dodo (Raphus cucullatus, called Didus ineptus by Linnaeus), more commonly just Dodo, was a metre-high flightless bird of the island of Mauritius. The Dodo, which is now extinct, lived on fruit and nested on the ground.
There are no intact museum specimens of the Dodo extant today. The decaying remnants of the last stuffed Dodo, in Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, were burned in 1755.
Nevertheless, from artists' renditions we know that the dodo had blue-grey plumage, a 23-centimetre (9-inch) blackish hooked bill with reddish point, very small useless wings, stout yellow legs, and a tuft of curly feathers high on its rear end. Dodos were very large birds, weighing about 23 kg (50 pounds).
The breast structure was insufficient to have ever supported flight and it is believed these ground-bound birds evolved to take advantage of an island ecology with no predators.
The traditional image of the dodo is of a fat, clumsy bird, but this view has been challenged by Andrew Kitchener, a biologist at the Royal Museum of Scotland (reported in National Geographic News, February 2002), who believes that the old drawings showed overfed captive specimens.
The Dodo was entirely fearless of people, and this, in combination with its flightlessness, made it easy prey. The name dodo comes from the archaic Portuguese word doudo, meaning "simpleton", doido in modern Portuguese meaning fool or mad. (The island was first visited by the Portuguese in 1505, but the Dutch were the first permanent settlers on the island.)
There is a persistent myth that dodos were eaten as food for the long voyages between the Cape of Good Hope and Asia, but neither historical nor archeological findings corroborate this. Dodos were hardly ever eaten by the Portuguese, who found the dodos hard to eat and very messy. Dutch records concur. The Dutch settlers called it the Walgvogel ("disgusting bird") for the unpleasant taste and texture of the meat. No dodo bones have been found in the old middens of the Dutch fort Frederik Hendrik.
However, when humans first arrived on Mauritius, they also brought with them other animals that had not existed on the island before, including pigs, rats and monkeys, which plundered the dodo nests, while humans destroyed the forests where they made their homes.
There is some controversy surrounding the extinction date of the dodo. David Roberts states that "the extinction of the dodo is commonly dated to the last confirmed sighting in 1662, reported by shipwrecked mariner Volkert Evertsz ", but other sources suggest 1681.
Roberts points out that because the sighting prior to 1662 was in 1638 (ie 24 years earlier), the dodo was likely already very rare by the 1660s. However, statistical analysis of the hunting records of Isaac Joan Lamotius , carried out by Julian Hume and coworkers, gives a new estimated extinction date of 1693, with a 95% confidence interval of 1688 to 1715.
The last known dodo was killed less than 100 years after their discovery, and no complete specimens are preserved, although a number of museums are home to dodo skeletons. Genetic material has been recovered from these and its analysis has confirmed that the dodo was a close relative of the pigeon species that are to be found in Africa and South Asia.
No one took particular notice of the extinct bird, until it was featured in the Caucus race in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). With the popularity of the book, the dodo became a household word: "as dead as a dodo." The character was named Dodo.
Two similar dodo-like species were reported by sailors to be living on islands near Mauritius: in 1613 the Réunion Solitaire, Raphus solitarius on Réunion, and in 1691 the Rodrigues Solitaire, Pezophaps solitarius on Rodrigues. The latter became extinct during the 1760s.
No evidence has ever been found to support the existence of the Réunion Solitaire, and ornithologists now believe that the bird actually seen was the Réunion Flightless Ibis Threskiornis solitarius, which is also now extinct. When it was believed to exist, it was also referred to as 'White Dodo', as travellers' descriptions of the Flightless Ibis correctly gave its plumage as mainly white, and as there exist some paintings of white dodos, it was believed that these showed the assumed dodo of Réunion. However, at least some descriptions clearly state that wingtips and tail of the Réunion "Solitaire" were black (as it certainly was the case, still seen in its close living relative, the Sacred Ibis), while the paintings show an entirely white bird (apart from what is probably soiling of some feathers with dirt in captivity). The paintings were most certainly of captive birds in some European menagerie; they show a rounded, not hooked beak which seems to indicate cropping as a precaution against attacks on the keepers (travellers' reports state that, if cornered, dodos would bite quite viciously, as can be expected of a bird with such considerable bulk). The most likely source of the 'White Dodo' paintings is a small number of albinotic dodos - perhaps even only one - that reached Europe and were kept as curiosities.
DNA analysis using the foot of the Dodo and the thigh bone of the Rodrigues Solitaire has recently confirmed that the Dodo and the Rodrigues Solitaire were, as expected, each others closest relative. More surprisingly, the research suggested that these birds were much closer taxonomically to the true pigeons than previously thought, and were particularly close to the Nicobar Pigeon, Caloenus nicobarica.
In 1973, scientists discovered that a species of tree on Mauritius, the dodo tree Sideroxylon grandiflorum = Calvaria major, was dying out. There were only 13 specimens reported left, and all of them were about 300 years old, dating from the time when the last dodo was killed. It was discovered that the dodos ate the seeds of the tree, and only by passing through the digestive tract of the dodo did the seeds become active and start to grow. After a while, it was discovered that the same effect could be accomplished by letting turkeys eat the seeds. The tree species has been saved. However, more recent research suggests that young specimens were simply overlooked and that it probably was the extinct Broad-billed Parrot Lophopsittacus mauritianus rather than dodos which were chiefly responsible for spreading the seeds. See the dodo tree article for more details and references.
Modern Dodo sightings (?)
Starting around 1990 or so, people began claiming they saw strange birds on the Mauritius beaches. Although rumors of their survival have gone on for a while, there is no proof of any living dodos. See cryptozoology for more information about cryptids.
The head and one foot of the Ashmolean dodo, mentioned above, can still be seen in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Literary sightings include a Dodo named Pickwick, pet of Thursday Next, protagonist in the books of Jasper Fforde.
- Erroll Fuller, Dodo: A Brief History 2003
Last updated: 06-01-2005 15:58:33