The dodo has the unenviable distinction of being a byword for something both dead and stupid. Many people view this big-beaked flightless fruit-eater as an unfortunate evolutionary mistake – a creature so fat, so painfully unintelligent, so useless, that it has no option but to die out. Perhaps because it was apparently so unfit for survival, its extinction seems somewhat acceptable to us, maybe even deserving.
But recently, we have started to look beyond our dated preconceived notions of this famous bird and we have learned that, like all organisms in a healthy, flourishing ecosystem, the dodo was, in fact, perfectly adapted to its environment.
The Giant Grounded Pigeon
The dodo lived only on the island of Mauritius, isolated in the vastness of the Indian Ocean. It was the largest known pigeon to have ever lived – a classic example of island gigantism. Its smaller ancestors almost certainly flew to Mauritius and found the island well-vegetated, devoid of mammalian predators, and full of fallen fruit and nuts for them to eat. Such ample resources allowed this bird, via the mechanism of evolution by natural selection, to grow significantly bigger over time.
Flight is the pride and joy of the birds, but it is also an extremely expensive method of locomotion in terms of energy. This means that as soon as flying becomes a luxury rather than a necessity, it is usually dropped. And that’s exactly what happened to the dodo. On Mauritius, flight was no longer needed to find food, and there were no land predators to escape from, so the dodo’s wings, over countless generations, dwindled to the point that they could no longer lift the bird into the air even if it wanted to return there. Its tail, which had once been a rudder to help the bird steer and manoeuvre in flight, was reduced to a decorative curly tuft on its rump.
Becoming flightless on a remote, predator-free island, where it greatly saves on energy, is an evolutionary advantage. In fact, the dodo is thought to have once been incredibly abundant, reaching a peak population of perhaps half a million birds. Clearly, then, this was not a failure of a species.
But that evolutionary advantage remains only so long the island is safe. Those same birds will become horribly vulnerable if predators suddenly arrive at a later date – and the worst predator of all is Homo sapiens.
Mauritius is so remote that Europeans did not discover it until the beginning of the 16th century, and it was another 100 years before ships called at the island with any frequency. These sailors sought a safe sea route to India and discovered that Mauritius, halfway across the Indian Ocean, was the perfect base for their ships to restock with food and water. They were eager for fresh meat, and one of the easiest sources came from the giant, grounded pigeons that lived there.
Another trait that comes from living in isolation, it should be noted at this point, is tameness. The dodo evolved on an island with virtually no predators and so it lost its wariness of other animals that might want to eat it. It therefore would not have initially recognised humans as a threat, so when Portuguese sailors first set foot on Mauritius, the birds were, by all accounts, curious and inquisitive rather than instinctively afraid. As such, it was apparently very easy for the sailors to approach them and club them to death.
It was the dodo’s trusting nature and its flightlessness that resulted in humans calling it stupid. In fact, although the etymology of ‘dodo’ is disputed, it may have come either from the Portuguese word doudo, which means ‘foolish’, or the Dutch word dodoor, meaning ‘sluggard’, neither of which are particularly complimentary towards the bird . Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish zoologist and taxonomist who formalised the modern system of naming organisms, later gave the bird the early scientific name of Didus ineptus, which literally means ‘stupid dodo’.
So it is now clear that the dodo wasn’t as brainless and half-witted as people once thought, or, indeed, continue to think. But what about its size? That, too, is likely to have been grossly exaggerated. Although historical oil paintings commonly depicted fat, ugly, ungainly birds whose bottoms practically dragged along the ground, they were almost certainly overfed, under-exercised captive individuals, or else simply based on sailors’ descriptions rather than drawn from real life.
Perhaps the most famous depiction of the dodo while it was still alive was a painting by a Dutch artist called Roelant Savery in 1626. This bird is shown as being very fat and comical-looking, and probably not very life-like at all. But over the following centuries, it was this fanciful image of the dodo that prevailed, and each new painting of the bird amplified its unflattering characteristics. With each reconstruction, the poor dodo kept getting fatter and fatter, to the point that anyone looking at one of these pictures might have reasonably assumed that the bird, in life, could barely move at all.
We may never know for certain what a real dodo looked like. This is because no complete skin specimens exist, and even today any reconstructions have to be made from composite elements using different skeletons. Nonetheless, it seems very likely that the dodo was a much slimmer bird, and stood more upright, than commonly thought. It grew to the size of a large turkey, had sturdy legs that probably enabled it to run fairly fast, a relatively long, slender neck, a thick, distinctive-shaped beak ending in a bulbous hook, and a bare, featherless face that allowed it to gorge on soft fruit without getting its feathers in a mess.
Death of the Dodo
It was previously believed that when Europeans arrived on Mauritius, they started slaughtering the dodo in great numbers. But this train of thought has now changed. Considering the dodo apparently didn’t run away from humans, it would have been of limited value as a sporting bird and was probably not killed for fun. As to whether it was regularly killed for its meat… well, there are conflicting reports as to what it tasted like. Some of the earliest settlers named the dodo Walckvogel, which translates to ‘disgusting bird’ because its meat was supposedly very tough and unpalatable. Others, however, seemed to find its flesh more agreeable, especially if they hadn’t eaten fresh meat in months – and doubly so if it was dressed in oil made from the fat of giant tortoises.
On balance, the dodo probably wasn’t the tastiest of creatures and it seems they were not eaten with any great relish. In any case, even when Mauritius became a Dutch colony, the permanent human population of the island remained quite small for a long time. Today, it is generally believed that hunting by humans, although it doubtlessly occurred and was responsible for the deaths of a fair few dodos, was not the main cause of extinction.
However, the settlers also began destroying the dodo’s forest home, opening up the island for agriculture. In addition, they brought with them a variety of animals that came to live on Mauritius in great numbers. Some of them were brought along deliberately – pigs, goats, dogs, and even monkeys – whereas others, such as rats, were unwanted stowaways. All found the pristine island much to their liking. They competed with the dodos for food and plundered their ground nests for their eggs. This hit the dodo population hard. Being a long-lived, slow-breeding bird, it was unable to recover from the sudden onslaught. It was being killed much faster than it could reproduce.
It didn’t take us long to wipe the dodo out. It was first mentioned by western explorers in 1598. The last widely accepted sighting was in 1662. In less than a century, habitat destruction, hunting, and the arrival of non-native predators and competitors had caused its extinction.
The Dodo’s Legacy
When the dodo vanished, few people took notice and even fewer people cared. In fact, its extinction was not widely accepted for hundreds of years. This was partly because of religious reasons. Many people believed that extinction was simply not possible, that God would not allow one of his precious creations to vanish from the planet.
According to a (probably apocryphal) story, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided in 1755 to unceremoniously throw their decayed and tattered specimen of a dodo into a fire during spring cleaning. This was the stuffed remains of the last dodo seen in Europe, already 100 years old or more. What the director didn’t realise was that this was, as far as anyone knows, the last stuffed specimen of a dodo in existence anywhere. Luckily, a diligent museum employee had the foresight to cut off the head and right foot before consigning the rest to the flames. Today, the foot is in a skeletal state, with only a few scraps of skin and tendon remaining, while the head has very few feathers left on it. Nonetheless, they contain the only known soft tissue remains of this extinct animal.
By the 19th century, the physical remains of dodos in museums had become so extraordinarily rare that many people actually regarded the bird as a mythical creature invented by sailors, a figment of the imagination. Even the natives of Mauritius, when quizzed, said no one had ever known of or remembered seeing such a bird. It seemed as though the dodo couldn’t even survive in people’s memories.
But then, in 1865, Mauritius schoolmaster George Clark unearthed a multitude of dodo bones from a swamp, proving conclusively that the bird had indeed once existed. That same year, Lewis Carroll included an anthropomorphic dodo as a character in his famous book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Some people believe that Carroll (who was an Oxford mathematician) was inspired to include a dodo due to exhibits he saw in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History: in particular, a 1651 painting of the bird by Jan Savery (the nephew of Roelant Savery) and the last tangible dodo relics – the aforementioned rescued foot and head – which had been translocated from the Ashmolean Museum sometime earlier.
Thanks largely to the popularity of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the illustrations provided by Sir John Tenniel (one of which can be seen at the top of this article), the dodo became a favourite character in Victorian culture, and it is this image of the bird that is perhaps lodged most firmly in many people’s minds even today.
For a bird that was last seen alive in the late 17th century, and for which no complete specimens survive, the dodo seems remarkably familiar. Its image, even if it is a somewhat inaccurate one, is immediately recognisable to us all. But in reality, very little is known for certain about this huge, flightless pigeon. Few people actually observed and recorded the bird in life. We have a small number of incomplete skeletons, some written descriptions and paintings, and a couple of scraps of skin. That’s about it. The ‘stuffed dodos’ that can often be seen in museums throughout the world are all models, reconstructions made from the feathers of chickens or other birds.
Even so – and despite the fact it was only known to Europeans for less than 100 years – the dodo had an enormous impact upon our imagination. It has become the stuff of stories and folk wisdom, a posthumous star of extinction. Today, the phrase ‘as dead as a dodo’ refers to something that is truly, unequivocally, and irretrievably defunct. It may not have been the first animal to have been wiped out by humans (and it certainly wasn’t the last), but the dodo was nonetheless massacred so swiftly that its name has become synonymous with extinction itself. As far as extinct creatures are concerned, only dinosaurs can match the dodo for celebrity.
I will end this article by making it as clear as I possibly can that the dodo did not die out due to its own shortcomings. It was wiped out by unnatural forces against which it had no defence. Such a fate has befallen many other species in the past, and likely will many more in the future. As humans and their actions continue to drive the decline of a huge variety of living things through habitat destruction, overhunting, pollution, invasive species and, of course, climate change, we should not blame individual species if they cannot adapt in time. We should only blame ourselves.
 There is an alternative theory as to how the dodo acquired its name. Some experts believe that it might have made an onomatopoeic ‘doo-doo’ cooing noise, rather like the pigeons that it was related to. Of course, this is pure speculation because, sadly, no one will ever hear a dodo again.