Embark on a fascinating journey into the world of the enigmatic dodo bird, a creature that has captivated our imaginations and stirred curiosity for centuries. Once roaming the forests of Mauritius, the dodo has become a symbol of extinction and mystery. Despite its disappearance over 300 years ago, the dodo continues to intrigue scientists, historians, and wildlife enthusiasts alike. In this article, we delve into 10 remarkable facts about this extraordinary bird, shedding light on its life, characteristics, and the lessons its story holds for us. Join us as we uncover the truths and debunk the myths surrounding the dodo, revealing why this bird is far more than just a symbol of extinction
10. Various Nicknames
The dodo was known by various nicknames, such as: exotic capon, truncated swan, dodaars, Portuguese penguin, grifeend, dronte, carnival goose, and abhorrent bird. The name “abhorrent bird” was associated with the animal because the meat of the bird was not tasty and tough. The name “carnival goose” is perhaps derived from the date the ship visited Mauritius, coinciding with the Amsterdam carnival held in Amsterdam. At such carnivals, fattened birds were offered as food, which could have led to the name carnival goose. The name “dronte” is derived from the Middle Dutch word “dronten,” meaning swollen. The name “dodaars” means pluck-bum, referring to the “tail” of the bird.
9. Endemic to Mauritius
The bird was endemic to Mauritius. Endemic means that a species only occurs within a geographically defined area. Outside Mauritius, the dodo did not exist. Mauritius is a small island in Africa (about 2,000 square kilometers) west of Madagascar. The island was probably discovered in the 10th century by Arabic travelers. In 1507, the island was visited by the Portuguese, but the Dutch were the first to settle on the island. The starving Dutch sailors who reached Mauritius immediately pounced on the animals to eat them, as well as the pets they had brought along.
8. Easy to Catch
Before the Dutch arrived, the dodo had no enemies. There were no predators on Mauritius, so the bird was not at all afraid of humans and the pets they brought. Additionally, the bird could not fly. Even if the bird wanted to flee, it would not be easy. Since the bird could not fly, they also made their nests on the ground. The eggs were thus easy to grab for humans and the pets they brought. No eggs mean no birds. It was described how easy the birds were to catch.
7. Unclear When the Bird Became Extinct
It is not clear exactly when the dodo became extinct. It is generally assumed that this happened at the end of the 17th century. Both 1662, 1669, 1674, and 1681 are mentioned as possible years of the dodo’s extinction. In these years, there was still mention of a dodo on Mauritius, but it is questionable which description is the most reliable. Humanity did not realize that the dodo was extinct until the 19th century. The extinction of a species had never been observed before and was therefore considered impossible. Reports of living dodos continued to appear for more than a hundred years, but these reports were probably based on fantasy.
6. Reasons for Extinction
The famous biologist Richard Owen explained the extinction of the dodo due to its degenerated and imperfect structure, but this is now considered outdated. According to new insights, there was a drastic climate change on Mauritius about 4200 years ago. This led to centuries-long drought, which the dodo, however, managed to survive.
What was the reason for the extinction of the dodo? Many things about the extinction of the dodo are unclear. It has long been thought that humans continued to eat the dodo, but because the meat was not tasty at all, this chance is small. In new archaeological research, no bones of dodos have ever been found among human waste on Mauritius, though bones of many other animal species have. The most likely assumption now is that the dodo did not become extinct due to human consumption, but indirectly became extinct due to human actions. Deforestation, the limited size of Mauritius, and the introduction of other animals on the island, such as pigs, dogs, and rats, likely played a more important role. The black rat and the macaque also ate the eggs of the dodo, making reproduction difficult.
Since Mauritius is a volcanic island, fossils are rare. There are poor preservation conditions for bone material. A dead animal decomposes quickly and nothing remains of it. In the southwest of the island, there is a marsh where many traces from the past have been preserved. In this marsh, thousand-year-old remains of animals can be found. Apart from the dodo, also of other extinct animals such as certain turtles, birds (such as the Dutch pigeon), and fish.
The first major discovery was in 2005. A Dutch-Mauritian research team found an extremely fossil-rich layer in the marsh. The material found is probably 2000 to 3000 years old. With this new discovery, scientific research can be conducted for the first time into the world in which the dodo lived before the western man set foot on Mauritius and eradicated the dodo.
After the special discovery in 2005, there was a follow-up to the dodo expedition. In June 2006, a team left for a 32-day expedition to Mauritius. The expedition was to shed more light on the causes of the disappearance of the dodo and its ecosystem. All the bones found are in one layer, which suggests a mass grave. Multiple bones of dodos have been discovered, including a very rare part of the beak, of which only a few are known in the world.
In 1992, Dutch writer and dodo enthusiast Boudewijn Büch managed to obtain a dodo bone from the museum director of Mauritius. Fragments of this can be seen on YouTube. Boudewijn Büch died in 2002 and only after his death did science learn much more about the dodo. There remains doubt whether the bone was actually a dodo bone or a chicken bone.
Despite its large beak, the dodo was not a bird of prey, but a herbivore. The dodo lived off the seeds and fruits of various plants. To improve digestion, the bird regularly swallowed stones that helped grind the food in the stomach. Such stomach stones are called gastroliths and are also known from other birds and animals such as reptiles. It is also suspected that the bird gorged itself part of the year and lived off its fat reserves for another part of the year due to a lack of food.
3. The Dodo and the Pigeon
Due to its appearance, it was soon thought that the dodo was related to the ostrich or the emu. This is not so strange, since the ostrich, emu, and dodo are all flightless birds. Biologically, however, the dodo belongs to the pigeon family. The suspicion that the dodo was related to the pigeon dates back to the nineteenth century. Professor John Theodore Reinhardt of the Royal Museum in Copenhagen was the first to propose this idea. He was supported by Hugh Strickland, author of The Dodo and its Kindred (1848), the first dodo biography. Both thought that dodos might be large pigeons. Initially, they were laughed at for this idea. Not so strange really, if you compare a pigeon in your mind with the well-known image of the dodo: a fat, clumsy bird that cannot fly. A comparison with an ostrich or a turkey seemed more plausible. Yet, in 2003, after scientific studies by the University of Oxford, it was confirmed that the dodo indeed descends from the pigeon.
Actually, no one knows what the dodo really looked like. It is often assumed that the dodo looks like most drawings: clumsy, heavy, and fat. In the seventeenth century, Dutch sailors saw a dodo several times, but their descriptions contradict each other. Was the dodo a fat and clumsy bird, or slender and tall on its legs? Although most paintings show a fat dodo, for example, a print from the Second Boeck in the travelogue of the Gelderland (a ship) shows a thin dodo. With modern techniques, attempts have been made to reconstruct the dodo. Andrew Kirchner has made two new reconstructions of the dodo. He did this by examining hundreds of bones and by studying various models. Based on this, he concluded that the dodo weighed between 10.6 and 17.5 kilos and that the animal could run fast. So, not a fat, slow bird, but a swift, athletic dodo. It is clear that the last word on the appearance of the dodo has not yet been said. It seems very likely that our image of the dodo is distorted by seventeenth-century images. These images were probably based on poorly mounted dodos. Scientists now lean towards the idea of a thinner and more athletic dodo. This idea is supported by the earliest drawings of the dodo and by the painting of Ustad Mansur. However, many mysteries about the dodo remain. Perhaps new excavations will shed more light on the appearance of this remarkable animal.
1. The Dodo in (Contemporary) Culture
The dodo has found a place in various comics, books, and films. For example, the bird appears in the story of Alice in Wonderland, but also in the Harry Potter books, where diricawls are mentioned. The dodo also appears in the comics of Douwe Dabbert, for example, in the comic “De Schacht naar Noord” (1979). Furthermore, a dodo is seen in the famous movie Ice Age. Finally, in 1995, Kinderen voor Kinderen made a song about the dodo. In this song, the stereotypical image of the dodo is used, namely of a fat, dumb bird. Whether this stereotypical image is correct still needs to be investigated.