Scientific name: Raphus cucullatus Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Aves
Order: Columbiformes Family: Columbidae When did it become extinct? The dodo is generally considered to have gone extinct in 1681, but any records of it after the 1660s have to be treated with caution. Where did it live? The dodo was only found on the island of Mauritius, 900 km to the east of Madagascar.
"As dead as a dodo!" No phrase is more synonymous with extinction than this one. The dodo Dodo—Although the dodo is one of the is the animal that springs to mind when we think most well known recently extinct animals, of extinction. Often portrayed as a stupid, bum-
very few remains of ,this animal survive to bling giant of a bird, the dodo was actually a very this day. (Renata Cunha)
interesting animal that was perfectly adapted to its island habitat. Unfortunately, its evolutionary path had never counted on humans; thus, when we discovered these birds, they didn't last very long.
We don't know exactly what the dodo looked like as no complete skin specimen exists, but we do know it was a large bird, about the same size as a large turkey, with a stout build, sturdy legs, thick neck, and large head. Fully grown specimens were probably around 25 kg in weight and as tall as 1 m. The dodo's most characteristic feature was its very large beak (up to 23 cm long), complete with bulbous, hooked tip. The wings were stubby and effectively useless as the dodo evolved on an island where there were no predators, and therefore flight was an expensive waste of energy; instead, it ambled about on the forest floor of its Mauritian home. The only information we have on what the dodo ate is from the accounts of seafaring people who stopped off on the island of Mauritius and saw the bird going about its everyday business. The favored food of the dodo was probably the seeds of the various Mauritian forest trees, but when its normal source of food became scarce in the dry season, it may have resorted to eating anything it could find. A liking for seeds ties in with other observations of the dodo's behavior, which report that it ate stones. These stones passed into the dodo's crop, which is like a big, muscular bag, and there they assisted in grinding the hard-shelled seeds.
As the dodo couldn't fly, it could only build its nest on the ground. Sailors described these nests as being a bed of grass, onto which a single egg was laid. The female incubated the egg herself and tended the youngster when it hatched. Sailors who saw the living birds said the young dodo made a call like a young goose. Apart from small pieces of information, we know very little about the behavior of the dodo. We have no idea if they lived in social
groups or how the adults interacted during the breeding season. What we do know is that they were hopelessly ill adapted to deal with human disturbance.
The dodo was first described in 1598, although Arab voyagers and Europeans had discovered Mauritius many years previously and had undoubtedly seen its unique animals. The large dodo excited hungry seafarers who had not eaten fresh meat for many months while out at sea; however, the flesh of the dodo was far from flavorsome. Even the unpleasant taste of the dodo's tough flesh didn't stop people from killing them for food, often in large numbers, and any birds that could not be eaten straight away were salted and stored on the ship for the rest of the voyage. Hunting the dodo was said to be a very easy exercise. It couldn't fly or even run at any great speed, and it also had the great misfortune of being completely unafraid of humans. Dodos had never seen a human, and as a result, they had not learned to be afraid. It is said they would waddle up to a club-wielding sailor only to be dispatched with one quick swipe. In the rare situation in which they felt threatened, they would use their powerful beak to good effect and deliver a painful nip.
Hunting obviously hit the dodos hard—their size and small clutches suggests that they were long-lived, slow-breeding birds, which was not a problem in the absence of predators, but as soon as humans and their associated animals entered the equation, extinction was inevitable. Seafarers who visited Mauritius brought with them a menagerie of animals, including dogs, pigs, rats, cats, and even monkeys. These animals disturbed the nesting dodos and ate the lonesome eggs. With this combination of hunting, nest disturbance, and egg predation, the dodo was doomed. It has been suggested that flash flooding could have tipped the dodo population, already ravaged by hunting, nest disturbance, and egg predation, over the edge into extinction. Regardless of the causes, the enigmatic dodo was wiped out in a little over 100 years after it was first discovered by Europeans.
♦ The dodo is in the same group of birds that includes the doves and pigeons. Its ancestor was probably a pigeonlike bird that alighted on the island of Mauritius, evolving over time into a big, flightless species.
♦ The last record of the dodo is commonly said to be that of an English sailor, Benjamin Harry, who visited the island in 1681. This and other late records of the dodo are thought to refer to another extinct Mauritian bird—a type of flightless rail called the "red hen." Historically, it was common for the name of an extinct animal to be transferred to another species living in the same location.
♦ Rodrigues Island, 560 km to the east of Mauritius, was once home to another species of big, flightless bird. This bird, known as the Rodrigues solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), was first recorded in 1691, yet by the 1760s, at the very latest, it, too, had gone the same way as its relative, the dodo. Réunion Island, also in the Mauritius group, was said to be the home of a completely white dodo called the "Réunion solitaire"; however, it has now been established that this bird was actually an ibis, rather than a dodo. Sadly, this bird is also extinct. Albino dodos were actually observed on Mauritius and undoubtedly added to the confusion over the identity of the Réunion solitaire.
♦ Although the dodo is a very familiar extinct animal, remarkably few remains of it exist in collections. There are a few complete skeletons, a few disjointed bones, and a head and foot that still have tissue attached. The foot and head came from the last stuffed specimen, which was once on display in the Oxford Ashmolean Museum. Apparently, by 1755, the specimen was in quite a sorry state, and it was said that the curator ordered it to be burned. This recklessness is now thought to be a myth and the burning was, in fact, a desperate attempt by museum workers to salvage what they could from a badly disintegrating specimen, leaving us with the remnants we have today.
♦ Mauritius and its neighboring islands, thanks to their isolation in the Indian Ocean, were home to many species of unique animal before the arrival of Europeans and the destructive animals they had in tow. At least we have a good idea of what the dodo and Rodrigues solitaire looked like—unfortunately, the same cannot be said for many of the other animals with which these birds shared their home. We now know these islands harbored other flightless and flying birds, bats, giant tortoises, and even snakes, all of which are now extinct. Precious little information is available on these animals.
Further Reading: Cheke, A. S. "Establishing Extinction Dates—The Curious Case of the Dodo Ra-phus cucullatus and the Red Hen Aphanapteryx bonasia"Ibis 148 (2006): 155-58; Johnson, K. P., and D. H. Clayton. "Nuclear and Mitochondrial Genes Contain Similar Phylogenetic Signal for Pigeons and Doves (Aves: Columbiformes)." Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 14 (2000): 141-51.
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