SPOTLIGHT STORY

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Dodo 

Meet the bird that time forgot...

Ever wondered about the extinct, flightless bird, the dodo? Here we’ve answered all the questions you ever wanted to know about the mysterious bird...

What is a dodo bird?

The dodo was a flightless relative of pigeons and doves, which once inhabited the islands of Mauritius and Reunion.

Dodo (late 18th or 19th century) - From the collection of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya

What did the dodo look like?

Dodos were large birds, approximately three-feet tall, with downy grey feathers and a white plume for a tail. The Dodo had tiny wings and its sternum – an area with strong wing muscles for flying birds – was correspondingly small.

The massive birds could reach a body weight of more than 20 kilograms! Dodos had a distinctive beak that may have been pale yellow or green which was heavy, curved and probably the dodo's only real defense; it was capable of delivering a fairly painful bite.

Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) - (c) NHM (Alice Schumacher) - From the collection of Natural History Museum Vienna

Where did dodo birds live?

The dodo was endemic to the island of Mauritius, 500 miles from the Eastern coast of Madagascar. The dodo was primarily a forest bird, occasionally venturing closer to the shoreline.

More than 26 million years ago, these pigeon-like birds found paradise while exploring the Indian Ocean: the Mascarene Islands.

With abundant food and no predators, the birds had no reason to leave. And so, over the years their descendants slowly grew bigger and heavier, their beaks grew larger, their wings smaller: dodos evolved.

Mauritius Island (Aerial View)

When did the dodo go extinct?

We can’t state an exact date but it seems that the dodo only died-off at the end of 17th century. Until recently, the last confirmed dodo sighting on its home island of Mauritius was made in 1662, but a 2003 estimate by David Roberts and Andrew Solow placed the extinction of the bird around 1690.

Dodo skeleton - Rare dodo skeleton constructed from bones around 1,000 years old.- From the collection of The Natural History Museum 

Why did the dodo became extinct?

The dodo had no natural enemies on Mauritius. Life was sweet for dodos until humans also discovered the Mascarenes, in the late 1500s. Despite the fact that humans were far bigger then them, dodos were not afraid of these intruders. Fearless and flightless, they were an easy prey.

Some were killed by sailors looking for a change in diet, others by the rats, cats, pigs and monkeys the sailors brought with them. Or dodos may have gone hungry as the invaders cleared forests rich in fruits. Their extinction is likely due to complex phenomena of changing ecosystem and human behavior.

A number of East Indiamen off the Coast (The Mauritius and other East Indiamen Sailing out of the Marsdiep) - c1600- c1630 -  Hendrik Cornelisz. Vroom from collection of Rijksmuseum

What does “dodo” mean?

You surely know the expression: “as dead as a dodo”! Nowadays, dodo means stupid or slow. But how did this extinct animal get its strange name? It may go back to early 17th century, developing from the Portuguese word 'doudo', or 'simpleton', probably because the bird had no fear of man and was easily killed.

A mythical creature?

From right after their extinction and up until the 19th century, dodos were considered by most scientists as a mythical creature - as real as griffin or unicorn - as there seemed to be no conclusive evidence of their existence. For the French that took possession of the island, the dodos seemed no more than the product of excessive imagination.

Only in the early 19th century did European naturalists begin to see dodos across various museum collections. Thus the animal was recognized as a real, if extinct, creature.

Reconstruction of a dodo - by Karl Kästner and Hwa Ja Götz - From the collection of Museum für Naturkunde Berlin

Why is the dodo so popular?

The dodo’s fame was secured by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The Dodo is a caricature of the author, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.

A popular but unsubstantiated belief is that Dodgson chose the particular animal to represent himself because of his stammer, as he would accidentally introduce himself as "Do-do-dodgson”. Carroll frequently visited the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Dodos have become an icon of extinction caused by human action, and act as a warning to us for the future. Let’s hope no other species go the way of the dodo!

Was the dodo fat?

Few complete dodo skeletons exist, so it is quite difficult to know exactly what they looked like. Their extinction was so rapid that they unfortunately left little trace of their existence.

Interpretations of the appearance of the dodo have varied over the centuries. While the testimonies of travelers all describe the dodo as having plumage ranging from black to dark gray, Dutch painters of the 17th century represented them with a bright plumage, perhaps confusing them with another animal on the island.

Similarly, painter Roland Savery’s depiction of a chubby dodo was mimicked in many representations of the animal over the years until recent scientific studies questioned this thinking, instead believing that these fat dodos were probably the ones in captivity rather than wild specimens.

Other studies suggested that the weight depended on the season, and that individuals were fat during cool seasons, but less so during hot ones. There is still controversy over the animal’s weight!

Reunion Island Dodo (1907) - From collection of Natural History Museum

Discover more from the weird and wonderful natural world in Cabinet of Curiosities.

Or continue your voyage into the Natural History project here.

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