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Was the Dodo Bird Really a Dodo?

Was this the extinction of a truly idiotic bird species, or have we had it all wrong?

The dodo is one of few animals extinct in recent history to make a significant impact on our culture and stay fresh in our memory. Extinct as of 1662, even centuries later they have remained popular characters in books, TV shows, and games.

However, it seems that some details have been blurred by time. Many of us characterize dodos as stupid, helpless animals who died due to their sheer idiocy. But is this the full story, or should we cut these chubby flightless birds a little slack?

First, a little background on these odd birds. The dodo was endemic only to Mauritius, an island east of Madagascar. Based on fossil remains, the dodo was slightly over 3 feet tall, and may have weighed up to 39 pounds.

Regardless of their exact height or weight, we are sure they were far from small birds. It’s questionable what the exact appearance of the dodo was — only some illustrations we have today were verifiably based on live specimens.

However, based on these illustrations as well as preserved remains, we know that the dodo had a naked, vulture-like face and brownish-grey plumage.

 The dodo had also evolved to be flightless — the island of Mauritius had abundant food sources and virtually no predators, sσ there was little use for flight in such a large, powerful bird. The dodo was also a member of Columbidae — the pigeon family.

The dodo shared many structural similarities with other pigeons, along with a large crop (a pigeon characteristic) and the use of gizzard stones to grind up food.

LONDON, ENGLAND – FEBRUARY 05: A museum employee looks at a Dodo in display at the ‘Extinction: Not the End of the World?’ exhibition at The Natural History Museum on February 5, 2013 in London, England. More than 99 percent of species that once roamed the planet are now extinct. Organisers of the exhibition hope to show that a diverse range of plants and animals survived. 80 Museum specimens are on display from February 8-8, September 2013. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

The dodo had one very closely related family member — the Rodrigues solitaire, which is also now extinct. This species is far from being as well-known as the dodo, but it’s known that they were even larger — they are reported to have been around the same size as swans.

With this species extinct, the closest living relative of the dodo is the Nicobar pigeon — the only living member of the genus Caloenas, and another fairly large bird (approximately 16 inches in length). What can we learn about the dodo from its closest living relative?

Like the dodo, the Nicobar pigeon is a large bird found in a limited range with a relatively large beak. However, it has a significant advantage — it is capable of flight.

The Nicobar pigeon lays a clutch of only one egg, in a loosely built stick nest — it’s also commonly claimed the dodo laid only one egg, though this is hard to verify. The Nicobar pigeon is also a very colorful bird — unlike our accounts of the dodo. But the biggest contradiction to the dodo’s reputation is the intelligence of other pigeon species.

The Nicobar pigeon has little research done on its intelligence specifically (partially due to it being a somewhat elusive species — around 1,000 are left in the wild), but there’s extensive research done on other Columbidae, in particular our common and often loathed rock pigeon.

Pigeons were successfully taught to discriminate between Monet and Picasso paintings — and they have also successfully cleared the “mirror test,” a feat that few non-primates are capable of (in these tests, a small sticker or other object is placed on the animal without their knowledge.

The animal is then placed in front of a mirror — if they recognize the abnormality on their body and go to remove it, they have demonstrated that they recognize the reflection as themselves.

Surprisingly, this isn’t an easy task for many animals — dogs, sea lions, and even African grey parrots are not capable of passing the mirror test).

There’s extensive accounts of pigeons delivering messages and saving lives during wartime, but many people aren’t aware that they can also play ping-pong.

Recently, there’s been building evidence to show that dodos may have had brains on par with their street-wandering cousins. A well-preserved dodo specimen from the American Museum of Natural history was put through a CT scan — along with the skulls of seven other species of pigeons.

The dodo’s brain size relative to its body was comparable to other species — with documented intelligence. It’s plausible to think that based on these findings, dodos were as smart as the pigeon species we are familiar with today.

Sσ where did dodos get the reputation for stupidity that’s persisted for sσ many years? The dodo was first observed by Portuguese sailors in approximately 1507 — and from there, it was downhill for the dodo. The large, flightless bird was used to a peaceful life with few predators or worries.

Sσ when sailors arrived on their island, bringing invasive species with them, dodos were not suspicious or prepared to avoid them. It’s likely that the birds were curious and unafraid — not out of stupidity, but out of lack of experience. This would have made the dodo extremely vulnerable both to humans and introduced animals.

Pigs, dogs, and rats were all introduced to the island in a short time frame — and these animals fed on the dodos’ eggs (while it’s unlikely rats preyed on dodos due to their size, it’s not hard to imagine dogs taking down flightless birds easily). Especially given that it’s suspected dodos laid clutches of only one egg, they quickly had their population devastated by humans and the animals they’d brought with them.

The extinction of the dodo is a cautionary tale — one that we haven’t listened to well. Invasive animals introduced by humans continue to wreak havoc on ecosystems and individual species — it’s estimated that outdoor cats alone kill anywhere between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually.

Unfortunately, despite the demise of the underestimated dodo, it seems that we’ve learned little over the past few centuries.