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In 1755, the only surviving stuffed dodo in a museum in England was destroyed. Today, only 'fake' dodos such as this one on display in the Mauritius Institute, remind us of this icon of extinction.
Photo : Sara Earhart

November 19, 2003
'The Way of the Dodo'
Real Audio Report
  28k


Log Transcript

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) is arguably the most common icon associated with the island nation of Mauritius.Although it was only about 300 years ago that the dodo became extinct, very little is known about this bird. Ironically, even though the dodo lived into the time of written history, more is known about the natural history and behavior of some dinosaurs than is known about the dodo. Its appearance, life history, and the history of its extinction all remain a mystery. The written reports and illustrations of sailors and ship's naturalists who visited Mauritius in the 17th century are the basis of all known information. Primary sources, such as these, should not be accepted without question as they are subject to inconsistencies, elaborations, and artistic interpretation-thus the difficulty in creating a true picture of this unique relative of the pigeon.

The name dodo has several possible origins. First, from the Portuguese word duodo meaning "foolish" or "idiot" (though one wonders why those who named it didn't question the wisdom of drawing attention to the fact that is was idiotic for animals to trust humans in those times)." Another belief is that it is derived from dodoor, Dutch for "sluggard" and that it then became corrupted into dodo. One scholar suggests that the origin of the name was from the Dutch word dod-aarsen meaning "swollen behind." But in the end, no one knows exactly where this strange name originated since there are several possibilities.

Strangely enough, very little physical evidence remains of the dodo. The last intact, stuffed specimen was incinerated in 1755 having become old and decomposed. What is left are a few incomplete skeletons, several skulls and feet, and a scattering of bones distributed around the world's top museums.

Although much of the information on the dodo is speculative, it is important to compile the facts we do know and preserve as much about the species as possible. Illustrations often present the dodo as a large bird with a rounded body. Its face is shown as lacking feathers and possessing a large hooked bill. As Dutch explorer Wybrant van Warwijck stated in 1598: "There are also other birds there which are as big as our swans, with large heads, and on the head a veil as though they had a small hood on their head; they have no wings but in their place there are three or four black quills, and where there should be a tail there are four or five small curled plumes of grayish color."

Looking at skeletal remains, ornithologists believe that the dodo fed on fallen fruit, using its hooked beak to tear the flesh off the seed. Evidence that they were omnivorous and had a generalist diet comes from instances where sailors brought the birds back to Europe, keeping them alive with other food sources besides fruit. Despite the information that has been collected over the years, we will probably never know the actual appearance or feeding behavior of the dodo.

LatestPhoto
Few complete dodo skeletons exist in the world today. Almost all dodo bones come from Mare Aux Songes - a 4 acre swamp on the south coast of Mauritius.
Photo : Sara Earhart

What we do know for certain about the dodo is that sometime around 1690, the species had become extinct and that it is humans are to blame. Europeans first arrived on Mauritius in 1507, but did not begin using the island regularly as a supply station until the arrival of the Dutch in 1598. The Dutch used Mauritius as a pasturing ground for livestock and as a resource for wild meat from native species. Hungry sailors found dodos to be an easy source of food and hunted them relentlessly. It was reported that even the slowest and clumsiest hunter, could easily capture several birds on one hunting expedition.

Although the meat was a welcome change from the bland provisions on the long oceanic voyages of the time, many sailors found it to be revolting. The Dutch name for the dodo was Walckv÷gel, meaning "disgusting bird". One English visitor commented that the dodo "is reputed far more for wonder than food, greasy stomachs may seek after them, but to a delicate stomach they are offensive and of no nourishment." Despite its reputation for being inedible, sailors still killed them by the thousands for food.

However, it was the indirect effects caused by animals introduced by humans that had the greatest influence of their population. The Dutch brought with them cattle, deer, chickens, dogs, cats, pigs, and monkeys and allowed them all to turn feral. Each of these species had effects on the island's ecosystem. It was the monkeys and pigs that had the largest impact on the dodo, wreaking havoc on young birds and eggs.

Having evolved without any native mammalian predators, the dodo couldn't fly and also lacked any other means of defending itself from predation. Although the adult dodos were better equipped to deal with predators because of their large size, they were unable to defend their eggs and chicks, and one by one, their crafty enemies pilfered the dodos' nests .

Over a period of 40-50 years, human influences exerted more and more pressure on the dodo population. The last known written encounter with a dodo was recorded in 1662 by Volquard Iverson, a Dutch sailor stranded on Mauritius. He and his fellow castaways searched the island high and low for food and only encountered a small group of dodos on a coastal islet just off shore. Unfortunately, this was also the last known record of the dodo.

The dodo is the most famous animal extinction in human history. With its death came the realization that humans have the ability to extinguish an entire species. Ironically, once the dodo was declared "extinct" there was a surge in dodo research lasting more than 150 years. Today the dodo lives on in Mauritius only as a national symbol and as an image on textiles, woodcarvings, and souvenirs in local markets and shops. However, it is always present in one's imagination to remind us that resources are not infinite and that humans must protect the world's species, lest they too go "the way of the dodo."

This is Sara Earhart speaking to you from aboard the Odyssey in Mauritius.

LatestPhoto
The most common souveniers sold in Mauritius are replicas of the dodo - a species driven to extinction by man over 300 years ago.
Photo : Genevieve Johnson

REFERENCES:

  • Bindloss, J., S. Singh, D.Swaney, and R. Strauss.
    Mauritius, Reunion, and Seychelles. Lonely Planet Publications. 2001
  • Ellis, R., A. Richards, and D. Schuurman.
    Mauritius, Rodrigues, and Reunion. Bradt Travel Guides. 2002.
  • Fuller, Errol.
    Dodo: A Brief History Universe Publishing. 2002.
  • Quammen, David.
    The Song of the Dodo. Simon & Schuster. 1996.

Links:

Written by Sara Earhart

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