Native to the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the chubby flightless Dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus) became famous through its own extinction. Discovered by the Dutch in the 16th century, the creature disappeared from the Earth’s surface within some 80 years of its discovery. Today still the Dodo, its environment, ecological function and extinction interests many scientists. Yet, since only a few bones, some tissue, a small number of paintings and unscientific records of the bird exists, its study remains complicated.
Though Mauritius was probably discovered by the early Arabs followed by the Portuguese, it was the Dutch who took records of dodos on the island. Back then, it was customary for sailors to take notes of topographical details, shipping routes and safe harbors when landing on new land. Oftentimes, professional artists also embarked on the voyages. These notes and drawings were important for future expeditions, scientists and book publishers. Presently, these accounts and drawings form the basis for understanding what the Dodo looked like and the environment in which it lived.
The first account of the Dodo stems from Heyndrick Dircksz Jolinck’s record who led one of the expeditions to Mauritius in 1598. He described the dodo for the first time as
‘large birds, with wings as large as of a pigeon, so that they could not fly and were named penguins by the Portuguese. These particular birds have a stomach so large that it could provide two men with a tasty meal and was actually the most delicious part of the bird’ (Moree 1998, p. 12).
‘Penguins’ here probably means ‘pinion’, the Portuguese word meaning clipped wings referring to the small wings of the Dodo.
In 1601-1603, Admiral Wolphert Harmenzoon stopped off at Mauritius in the south-west and described the Dodos as being common on a small offshore islet, most probably referring to Ile aux Benitiers. Additionally, in 1602, West-Zanen, who visited Mauritius earlier on, captained a voyage to the island and took notes of capturing the birds and salting them on board. Following these, various subsequent accounts detail the number of introduced animals in Mauritius and how they caused damage to the native flora and fauna. The only account of the Dodo’s diet, which was raw fruit, was mentioned by an anonymous Dutch sailor in 1631. Subsequently, in 1628-1634, when Peter Mundy, an avid island fauna observer visited Mauritius, he remarked that he first saw the big creatures in Surat, India. Though he did not actually land, this probably suggested the dodo numbers were decreasing or they were keeping away from people.
Interestingly in 1628, Emanuell Altham made an account of sending a live Dodo to his brother in England in two letters. Whether the animal really reached its destination, alive or dead is unknown. Altham also mentioned the rareness of the bird at that particular point in time and the large numbers of introduced animals. One year later, Thomas Herbert, a learned traveller and writer, described his encounter with the Dodo accompanied by an illustration of the creature. Strikingly Sir Hamon L’Estrange mentioned encountering a live Dodo in the streets of London in 1638 thus proving that the bird indeed reached Europe. Finally, the last authentic mention of Dodos is believed to come from Evertszen in 1662. He and his friends, who survived a shipwreck, apparently chased and caught these animals on some offshore islets off the west coast.
Basically, the Dodo is depicted as a tan-coloured, stout, obese bird with small wings. Initially, when the bird was first proposed as related to the Columbiformes (pigeons and doves), the idea was ridiculed. Nevertheless, subsequent DNA analyses proved that indeed the Dodo, as well as the extinct Solitaire on Rodrigues island, come from the Columbiformes family and originate from the same ancestor as the Asian Nicobar Pigeon (Coleonas nicobarica).
The first reconstruction of the bird was by Richard Owen in 1866. Based on Edward’s Dodo painting, he constructed the Dodo as a squat obese bird and after obtaining more skeletons in 1872, he re-constructed an upright, more real-life representation. The particular posture of the animal is attributed to the loss of its flight muscles yet the small wings were useful for balancing and it could easily outrun a man amongst rocks. In general, there is not much evidence on the colour of the bird, but the most reliable painting depicts it as tan. Unfortunately, it is impossible to state the exact height and weight of the bird because of the lack of concrete evidence. Skeletal construction puts the height of the animal at around 3 feet while modern analytical methods estimate a body mass between 8-18 kg.
As the Dodo was only found on Mauritius with probably one sighting in Surat and London as a result of transportation, it was questionable if the bird indeed existed. Its first physical evidence is believed to be a skull from a rare object collector Bernardus Paludanus of Enkhuizen dating to 1840. How the skull got into Paludanus’ possession is unclear but to date, the Copenhagen skull as it is called is the oldest Dodo fossil. Based on this skull, the hypothesis that the Dodo was a giant flightless pigeon was formulated. This was followed by Clusius’ description of a dodo leg in 1605, and Crosfield’s notes on dodos in his diary in 1634.
Futher to this, the Dodo that L’Estrange saw in London was eventually exhibited in the Tradescant museum in London in 1656 and passed on to the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford in 1659. After that, a second dodo foot named the ‘London or British Museum foot’ was exhibited at the British Museum by the Royal Society between 1665-1681. The Dodo’s most famous and look-alike painting by Roelandt Savery, called the ‘Edward’s Dodo’ and the dodo foot were exhibited in the British Museum until the late 1840s. Following Hugh Strickland and Alexander Melville’s monograph on the Dodo in 1848, scientific interest in the Dodo sparked again.
This enthusiasm led George Clark, who was Master of the Diocesan School on Mauritius, to discover the first Dodo bones at Mare aux Songes on the south coast in 1865. Incidentally, it was also the same year that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) published his book ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ wherein the Dodo was immortalized by illustrator Sir John Tenniel based on Edward’s Dodo. With this discovery of the Dodo bones, excavation began fervently and within the year, almost complete skeletons from Mare aux Songes were sent to England. Somewhere between 1890-1907, Etienne Thirioux discovered the almost complete Dodo skeleton at an unknown location on Mauritius. The last dodo bones were extracted from Mare aux Songes by Paul Carié in 1902, after which the site was filled to combat malaria.
In 1995, new excavation at Mare aux Songes by a Japanese team, in collaboration with Mauritian Institutes, proved successful in finding some dodo bones. Yet, due to some unfortunate circumstances that beheld both principal investigators of the project, the results were not published. In 2005, as part of an archaeological project to reconstruct the human settlement on Mauritius, the Mare aux Songes site was dug into again. Cores revealed a fascinating amount of information on the flora and fauna of Mauritius long before it was discovered. This led to the initiation of the Dodo Research Programme for understanding the original biota of Mauritius. Archaeological works were undertaken over the period 2005 to 2011 eventually leading to the discovery of the pelvis and some leg bones of a dodo bird.
There have been many suggestions regarding the extinction of the Dodo including deforestation, the stupidity of the bird, lack of capacity to run and overhunting amongst others. Yet many of these reasons are simply speculation and unrelated to the situation at that time. Based on historical accounts, the most likely reason for the extinction of the Dodo is the introduction of exotic animals that damaged the birds’ environment and reproductive abilities.
The big dodo bird was anything but stupid. In fact, the animal had survived on Mauritius for thousands of years despite extreme climatic events and developed characteristics to survive in that environment. For instance, it had a strong beak to protect itself and its chicks, could run fast in the forest and even had stomach gizzards that could crush and digest tough fruits. But since the bird did not have any direct predator, it was not afraid of humans and was thus easily captured and killed.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that dodos were hunted for their meat, sailors did not really appreciate its quality. When cows, deer, pigs, goats and other animals were introduced on Mauritius, hunters opted for the common game. What’s more, hunting was restricted to the coastal regions and at any time when the Dutch were on the island, the human population was very low, not exceeding 100 people. Also, the forest at that time was quite thick and impenetrable such that it was difficult for sailors to hunt dodos inside the canopy. Moreover, the Dutch indeed cleared some forest land for agriculture, settlement and to export ebony trees but it is estimated that only 5% of the forest had been damaged when they finally departed.
Many accounts talk about the infestation and damage of the black rats (Rattus rattus) in Mauritius. These pests reached the island onboard Dutch ships and had a significant impact on the biodiversity of Mauritius as a whole. It is believed that the black rats competed with Dodos for food especially after cyclones events when food was scarce. Additionally, foreign animals especially pigs and monkeys made matters worse by destroying the nests, understory forest and preying on the eggs and chicks of the dodos.
The last mention of the Dodo on Mauritius was in 1681 by Benjamin Harris on his homeward journey to England. Basically, it is difficult to ascertain when the Dodo went extinct but it is believed to be somewhere in the late 17th century.
The Dodo has been the subject of interest of many historians, scientists, ornithologists, painters and book publishers since it was discovered. Consequently, many historical records and paintings have been plagiarized and testimonies about dodo sightings have been feigned when properly analyzed. As such, it is complex to state with certainty what happened to the Dodo, why, where and when it happened. The story of this fascinating creature can only be broadly understood.