The dodo bird disappeared so quickly off the face of Earth 300 years ago that it has become the poster bird for extinction: Perhaps you’ve heard the popular expression “as dead as a dodo.” As sudden and swift as the dodo’s demise was, though, this unfortunate bird holds important lessons for managing endangered animals that are just barely avoiding extinction today and about the fragility of island ecosystems with their endemic species that have adapted to their unique environment.
1. The Dodo Bird Lived on the Island of Mauritius
Sometime during the Pleistocene epoch, a badly lost flock of pigeons landed on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, located about 700 miles east of Madagascar. The pigeons prospered in this new environment, evolving over hundreds of thousands of years into the flightless, 3-foot-tall (.9 m), 50-pound (23 kg) dodo bird, which was probably first glimpsed by human beings when Dutch settlers landed on Mauritius in 1598. Less than 65 years later, the dodo was completely extinct; the last confirmed sighting of this hapless bird was in 1662.
Until the modern era, the dodo had led a charmed life: There were no predatory mammals, reptiles, or even large insects on its island habitat and thus no need to evolve any natural defenses. In fact, dodo birds were so innately trusting that they would actually waddle up to armed Dutch settlers—unaware that these strange creatures intended to kill and eat them—and they made irresistible lunches for these settlers’ imported cats, dogs, and monkeys.
It takes a lot of energy to maintain powered flight, which is why nature favors this adaptation only when it’s absolutely necessary. After the dodo bird’s pigeon ancestors landed on their island paradise, they gradually lost their ability to fly, at the same time evolving to turkey-like sizes.
Secondary flightlessness is a recurrent theme in bird evolution and has been observed in penguins, ostriches, and chickens, not to mention the terror birds that preyed on South American mammals only a few million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.
Evolution is a conservative process: A given animal will produce only as many young as is strictly necessary to propagate the species. Because the dodo bird had no natural enemies, females enjoyed the luxury of laying only one egg at a time. Most other birds lay multiple eggs in order to increase the odds of at least one egg hatching, escaping predators or natural disaster, and actually surviving. This one-egg-per-dodo-bird policy had disastrous consequences when the macaques owned by Dutch settlers learned how to raid dodo nests, and the cats, rats, and pigs that invariably got loose from ships went feral and preyed on the chicks.
Ironically, considering how indiscriminately they were clubbed to death by Dutch settlers, dodo birds weren’t all that tasty. Dining options being fairly limited in the 17th century, though, the sailors who landed on Mauritius did the best with what they had, eating as much of the clubbed dodo carcasses as they could stomach and then preserving the leftovers with salt.
There’s no particular reason the meat of the dodo would have been unsavory to human beings; after all, this bird subsisted on the tasty fruits, nuts, and roots native to Mauritius and possibly shellfish.
Just to show what an anomaly the dodo bird was, genetic analysis of preserved specimens has confirmed that its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, a much smaller flying bird that ranges across the southern Pacific. Another relative, now extinct, was the Rodrigues solitaire, which occupied the Indian island ocean of Rodrigues and suffered the same fate as its more famous cousin. Like the dodo, the Rodrigues solitaire laid only one egg at a time, and it was completely unprepared for the human settlers that landed on its island in the 17th century.
There was only a short interval between the “official” naming of the dodo bird and its disappearance—but an awful lot of confusion was generated during those 64 years. Shortly after its discovery, a Dutch captain named the dodo the walghvogel (“wallowbird”), and some Portuguese sailors referred to it as a penguin (which may have been a mangling of pinion, meaning “small wing”). Modern philologists aren’t even sure about the derivation of dodo—likely candidates include the Dutch word dodoor, meaning “sluggard,” or the Portuguese word doudo, meaning “crazy.”
When they weren’t busy hunting, clubbing, and roasting dodo birds, the Dutch and Portuguese settlers of Mauritius did manage to ship a few living specimens back to Europe. However, most of these unfortunate dodos didn’t survive the months-long journey, and today these once-populous birds are represented by only a handful of remains: a dried head and a single foot in the Oxford Museum of Natural History and fragments of skull and leg bones at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum and the National Museum of Prague.
Aside from the phrase “as dead as a dodo,” the dodo bird’s chief contribution to cultural history is its cameo in Lewis Carroll‘s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” where it stages a “Caucus Race.” It’s widely believed that the dodo was a stand-in for Carroll himself, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Take the first two letters of the author’s last name and the fact that Carroll had a pronounced stutter, and you can see why he identified so closely with the long-gone dodo.
De-extinction is a scientific program by which we may be able to reintroduce extinct species into the wild. There are (barely) enough preserved remains of the dodo bird to recover some of its soft tissues—and thus fragments of dodo DNA—and the dodo shares enough of its genome with modern relatives such as the Nicobar pigeon to make surrogate parenting a possibility. Even still, the dodo is a long shot for successful de-extinction; the woolly mammoth and the gastric-brooding frog (to name just two) are much more likely candidates.