“Dead as a dodo”... the large, flightless birds rank with the dinosaurs as a symbol of extinction. The dodo is renowned for being slow, stupid and fat. An evolutional disaster, it was doomed to extinction from the day it was discovered by Dutch sailors on Mauritius in 1598. But is this an accurate picture?
The first group of sailors believed to have arrived on Mauritius were Portuguese, led by Captain Mascaregnas, in 1507. On their way to India, they found the (then unnamed) Mascarene Islands in the Indian Ocean—three of them a few hundred miles apart, all east and north of Madagascar. They had intended to land on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, but stormy conditions had blown them off course. They reported seeing land, but didn't report on any wildlife at all; they probably never saw a dodo.
It wasn't until 1598, when Captain Cornelius van Neck arrived that the islands received their names—names which changed several times through the centuries as the Dutch, French, and English changed them. They are now known as Rodriguez, Réunion, and Mauritius.
The major feature of these islands was large flightless, bad-tasting birds. Van Neck and his men named them dod-aarsen, 'stupid ass', dodars, 'silly birds', or solitaires. The original Latin name given by Carl Linnaeus was didus ineptus, but they’re now known as raphus cucullatus. There were three species — the dodo of Mauritius, the grey-brown, hooked-beak bird; the white, somewhat slimmer dodo of Réunion; and the solitaires of Rodriguez and Réunion, which looked like very fat light-coloured geese. The dodos all had thick legs, big squat bodies twice as large as a turkey's, naked faces, and big long down-curved beaks ending in a hook. Their wings were flaps the size of a human hand with only three or four feathers in them. Their tails were curly and fluffy, like a child's afterthought at decoration.
The dodo most likely evolved from African fruit pigeons of the genus Treron, which became stranded on the then predator-free island of Mauritius. There is evidence that dodos were much thinner than our modern perceptions of them. The first dodo drawings and paintings, dating from its discovery in 1598 up to 1605, showed much thinner birds than expected. The rest, dating from about 1626 onwards, invariably showed the more familiar, fatter dodos. Why?
In 1917, a Dutch ornithologist called A. C. Oudemans suggested the discrepancy was due to a seasonal fat cycle. The birds were laying down fat in the summer and then burning it off in winter, just as the pink pigeon (Columba mayeri) and other Mauritian birds do. None of these birds, however, changed its external appearance as drastically as the dodos depicted. Looking more closely at the historical evidence, the thin dodos were drawn by people who had actually been to Mauritius, while the plumper ones were mostly produced by artists in Europe.
In 1990, Andrew Kitchener, a curator at the Royal Museum of Scotland, was asked to come up with a new reconstruction of this famous extinct bird. Of the pictures, he states:
‘I formed a hypothesis. Perhaps the few captive dodos that were brought back alive to Europe were unusually fat for some reason. They might have grown dissolutely obese on the voyage, gorging on an unrestricted diet of ship's biscuits and the weevils that inevitably went with them.’
With access to the hundreds of dodo bones in the zoology museum at the University of Cambridge and the Natural History Museum in London, unearthed from the Mare aux Songes swamp in south-east Mauritius, he made measurements and re-created a dodo, following the pattern seen in birds today for the soft tissues. Happily,
‘The result was remarkably similar to the first drawing of the dodo. In the journal of Admiral Jacob Comelius Van Neck, who visited Mauritius in 1598, there is a drawing showing a scene of everyday life in Mauritius. In the background a long-legged and thin-necked dodo strides purposefully into the distance.’
He tested the bones and models for density, checking for probable weight and such – he even gained permission to slice open some dodo femurs to check the structure! All of this is laid out in painstaking detail on his website ; the upshot being that dodos were thinner and faster than we thought. As for their speed, eyewitness accounts concur: in 1662, Volquard Iversen became shipwrecked on a small island off the southeast coast of Mauritius. He described the birds he saw: 'Amongst other birds were those which men in the Indies called doddaersen ['round bottoms']; they were larger than geese but not able to fly. Instead of wings they had small flaps; but they could run very fast.'
During his studies, he also determined that the “dodo egg” given to the East London Museum in South Africa by Marjorie Courtenay Latimer1 could not have come from a bird the size of a dodo, but rather one the size of an ostrich.
DNA tests have also gained scientists2 insight into the evolutionary processes of the dodo:
‘Dr Alan Cooper, Director of the Henry Wellcome Ancient Biomolecules Centre, described how the DNA revealed the evolutionary history of this previously unrecognised group, saying: 'The genetic differences suggest that the ancestor of the Dodo and Solitaire separated from their Southeast Asian relatives around 40 million years ago, and sometime after this point flew across the Indian Ocean to the Mascarene Islands. The data then indicate the Dodo and Solitaire speciated from each other around 26 million years ago, about the same time that geologists think the first land appeared on the Mascarene plateau. However, Mauritius and Rodrigues islands are much younger (8 and 1.5 million years respectively), implying that the Dodo and Solitaire used now sunken islands as stepping-stones. Furthermore, the presence of the Solitaire on the geographically isolated Rodrigues Island suggests that it, at least, may have still been able to fly as recently as 1.5 million years ago.’
This is the information that we can get from the bones; for all else we rely on the journals of sailors and other visitors. Some sailors' accounts talk of watching dodos wade into water-pools to catch fish; they were described as 'strong and greedy' hunters. Since the extinction of the dodo endangered the Calvaria tree, it’s surmised that the seeds would only sprout after digestion by a dodo. Research has proven the seeds can also be digested by turkeys and thrive; this strongly suggests the dodos also ate the fruits of this tree.
Specifics about mating and incubation periods are completely unknown. Several accounts described the nests the dodo made as being deep in the forest, in a bed of grass. There, the female would lay one egg, which she would protect and raise. One sailor told about hearing the cries of a young dodo in its nest, which sounded 'like that of a young goose.'
Although most pictures and stories place the dodo along the shores, it was actually a forest-dwelling bird. The island of Mauritius is home to a variety of biomes3, such as plains, small mountains, forests, and reefs all along the shores; all of the dodo remains recovered have come from the forest, which agrees with log and journal entries.
The dodo had no natural enemies on the islands. The Dutch, French, and Portuguese sailors who stopped at the Mascarenes to replenish stores found that they could walk right up to them and hit them on the head with clubs. Also, dodos could be herded around like sheep. Ship's logs are full of things like: ‘Party of ten men ashore. Drove half-a-hundred of the big turkey-like birds into the boat. Brought to ship where they are given the run of the decks. Three will feed a crew of 150.’ It was reported that most of the dodo, except for the breast, tasted bad. One of the Dutch words for them was walghvogel, 'disgusting bird'; but on a ship three months out, food was where you found it. It was said that even prolonged boiling did not improve the flavour.
Even so, the dodos might have lasted, except that the Dutch, and later the French, colonized the Mascarenes. These islands became plantations raising sugar cane and other ‘exotic’ crops. Along with groups of people, the ships brought cats, dogs, hogs, the cunning Rattus norvegicus and the Rhesus monkey from Ceylon. What dodos the hungry sailors left were chased down by dogs and cats; their eggs were stolen and eaten by monkeys, rats, and hogs, and they competed with the pigs for all the low-growing goodies of the islands. The last Mauritius dodo was seen in 1681, less than a hundred years after man first saw them, the last white dodo walked off the history books around 1720. The solitaires of Rodriguez and Réunion, last of the genus as well as the species, may have lasted until 1790.
LinksThe Dodo Image Gallery
DNA yields dodo family secrets
Rebuilding the Dodo from its DNA
The Dodo was really a pigeon
The Mauritius Encyclopedia
estinto come un dodo
DO DODÓ À FÉNIX