“As dead as a dodo” is a familiar saying, used to indicate that a person or a situation has gone way beyond hope of revival. With no records of living dodos beyond the end of the 17th century, they are one of the world’s best-known examples of an extinct species. But how much do we know about when they became extinct, and is it even possible to accurately state when the last dodo on the planet died? Read on to learn what our research into these questions found out.
The last recorded sighting of a dodo was by Dutch sailor Volkert Evertsz, who was shipwrecked on Amber Island, off the coast of Mauritius in 1662. Later visitors to the island did not mention the unusual birds, a fact that historians use as a basis to judge when dodos became extinct.
Dutch sailors were the first to spot the “great quantity of foules twise as bigge as swans” in 1598, and later observations noted the birds’ trusting and serene nature when being approached and captured.
Less than 100 years after these first sightings, what caused these hook-beaked flightless giants to disappear forever? Read on, as we attempt to piece together the reasons for one of the most famous examples of species decline ever recorded.
Close up of a Dodo
Dutch sailors first spotted the dodo at the end of the 1500s, with the first recorded observations made in 1598. The islands, unexplored until this time, were used as a stopover point en-route through the Indian Ocean for spice traders and later became a Dutch penal colony.
Sailors who stopped at the island did hunt dodos for food. However, it is widely accepted that although humans did kill large numbers of the dodo population, it was mammals introduced to Mauritius by human settlers that were ultimately to blame for the bird’s decline and eventual extinction.
Having existed for millions of years in isolation on Mauritius, the dodos’ secure habitat was disrupted by dogs, pigs, deer, rats, and monkeys that arrived alongside human visitors and settlers. This sealed the fate of the dodo, and within less than 100 years of humans first setting foot on the dodo’s once-safe haven in the Indian Ocean, the giant flightless bird had become extinct.
Dodos initially had no natural predators. They were able to thrive in isolation on Mauritius and lived without any threat to their nests, chicks or their own lives. The only other mammals native to Mauritius at this time were fruit bats.
When humans arrived, dodos were so unused to encountering any kind of dangerous or threatening situation, and were fearless around humans. Even when they were captured by hunters, they were reported to be calm rather than agitated or attempting to escape.
Sailors that arrived on the island hunted dodos, and were the birds’ first predators. Non-native animal species that were introduced to Mauritius by the human arrivals, including dogs, pigs, deer, cats, rats, and crab-eating macaques, would have posed an insurmountable threat, not only to the adult birds, but also to their nesting sites, their eggs, and their young.
Dodos lived on the island of Mauritius
The only first-hand information we have about dodos is from the very limited number of surviving records from the late-1500s and into the 1600s. The first written record that mentioned a bird fitting the dodo’s description was made by Dutch sailors in 1598.
Only sketchy observations were made, and we are none the wiser as to how long these birds’ natural lifespan would have been, beyond rough estimates of similar species of between 10 and 20 years.
We do not have any concrete proof of the eating habits and food preferences of dodos, but researchers believe that fruit, seeds, roots, and berries formed the bulk of their diet. They were also observed to eat small rocks to aid digestion. The fruit of the tambalacoque tree, native to Mauritius, is thought to have been a key element of the dodo’s diet.
Scientists have studied dodo DNA and established that their ancestors include crowned pigeons from New Guinea. On this basis, it may be assumed that dodos had a similar diet, eating mainly fruit, seeds, and bulbs, but also crabs and shellfish.
A reconstruction of a Dodo in its natural habitat
Dodos were native to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. By 1640, the birds were already becoming significantly rare on the main island of Mauritius, but individual dodos were still observed on the offshore islets into the early 1660s.
Perhaps unfairly, dodos have become synonymous with stupidity. Modern thinking, however, contests this view, offering a contrary theory – that dodos were in fact an evolutionary success story, having developed specific adaptations to work flawlessly with their island surroundings over the course of millions of years until the arrival of humans and human-introduced predators.
Dodos gained the reputation as “dumb” due to being classed as easy prey by the sailors who landed on Mauritius. Having never encountered humans before, the birds were trusting and friendly and therefore easy prey, as they initially showed no resistance to being caught.
According to David Quammen, in his research into the extinction of island species “The Song of the Dodo,” this should be termed as “ecological naiveté” and inexperience rather than stupidity.
An old illustration of a Dodo bird
Only one record exists that describes the appearance of dodo eggs, written by French explorer François Cauche, who made notes on what is widely believed to be the dodo’s reproduction and nesting habits.
Cauche describes the egg as “... white, the size of a halfpenny roll.” He later used the same comparison to describe the egg of the white pelican (Pelecanus onocrotalus), so we can infer that dodos’ eggs were roughly the same size as those of pelicans.
Females laid only one egg, believed to be an evolutionary adaptation to their safe isolation on the island, with no immediate threat to the survival of the species. Nests were shallow scrapes on open ground, roughly surrounded with grass, and therefore in full view and easily accessible to the newly introduced predatory mammals.
Dodos were tall, thickset birds, with long hooked beaks around 23 cm (9 in) long on their heads, which were gray and featherless. Their undeveloped wings support the observations that they were flightless. Dodos had stout, scaly yellow legs, with sharp talons on their three-toed feet.
Dodo feathers were described as being anything from black to a lighter shade of grayish-white. This difference in plumage could likely be explained by an annual molting pattern.
Dodos became extinct several hundred years before the advent of photography, so again, we have no conclusive evidence to support what dodos looked like. We can draw inferences from preserved dodo skeletons, as well as from several exaggerated cartoon-style sketches or paintings that were popular in the 1600s. However, such drawings would largely have been created by artists who had never witnessed a dodo in real life.
From modern analysis of fossilized skeletons, it appears that dodos may have been a lot slimmer and more streamlined than the overweight, comical bird we have become used to seeing in picture books and cartoons.
A modern mock up of a Dodo
To date, only two relatively complete dodo skeletons have been discovered, as well as surviving pieces of soft tissue from an individual bird’s head and foot. From this, and from contemporary accounts, we can estimate that dodos stood around 1 m (3 ft 3 in) in height, weighed up to 20 kg (44 lb) and had a wingspan of 50 cm (20 in).
The skeleton of a Dodo
According to written records, the last credible sighting of a living dodo was noted in 1662. It is conceivable that this bird lived for some years after this final observation. Unverified sightings made until 1688 but no later, would support the accepted theory that the last remaining dodo had certainly died before the turn of the 17th century.
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