10 Facts About the Dodo Bird

01
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Why the Dodo Is the Poster Bird for Premature Extinction

Dodo Skeleton
Fox Photos / Getty Images

The Dodo Bird disappeared so quickly off the face of the earth, 300 years ago, that it has become the poster bird for extinction: perhaps you've heard the popular expression "as dead as a dodo." As sudden and swift as the Dodo's demise was, though, this unfortunate bird holds important lessons for endangered animals that are just barely avoiding extinction in the present day. 

02
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The Dodo Bird Lived on the Island of Mauritius

Sugar Cane Crop, Mauritius
The island of Mauritius, where the Dodo Bird lived. Tim Graham/Getty Images / Getty Images

Some time during the Pleistocene epoch, a badly lost flock of pigeons landed on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, located about 700 miles east of Madagascar. The pigeons prospered in this new environment, evolving over hundreds of thousands of years into the flightless, three-foot-tall, 50-pound Dodo Bird—which was probably first glimpsed by human beings when Dutch settlers landed on Mauritius in 1598. Less than 75 years later, the Dodo was completely extinct; the last confirmed sighting of this hapless bird was in 1662.

03
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Until Humans, the Dodo Bird Had No Natural Predators

dodo bird
An early sketch of the Dodo Bird. Wikimedia Commons

Why did the Dodo Bird vanish so quickly from the island of Mauritius? Well, until the modern era, the Dodo led a charmed life: there were no predatory mammals, reptiles, or even large insects on its island habitat, and thus no need to evolve any natural defenses. In fact, Dodo Birds were so innately trusting that they would actually waddle up to armed Dutch settlers, unaware that these strange creatures intended to kill and eat them—and they made irresistible box lunches for these settlers' imported cats, dogs and monkeys.

04
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The Dodo Bird Was "Secondarily Flightless"

dodo bird
The Dodo Bird. Wikimedia Commons

It takes a lot of energy to maintain powered flight, which is why nature favors this adaptation only when it's absolutely necessary. Once the Dodo Bird's pigeon ancestors landed on their island paradise, they gradually lost their ability to fly, at the same time evolving to turkey-like sizes. (Secondary flightlessness is a recurrent theme in bird evolution, and has been observed in penguins, ostriches and chickens, not to mention the terror birds that preyed on South American mammals only a few million years after the dinosaurs went extinct.)

05
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The Dodo Bird Laid Only One Egg at a Time

Dodo bird
Nastasic / Getty Images

Evolution is a conservative process: a given animal will only produce as many young as is strictly necessary to propagate the species. Because the Dodo Bird had no natural enemies, females enjoyed the unique luxury of laying only one egg at a time (most other birds lay multiple eggs, in order to increase the odds of at least one egg escaping predators or natural disaster and actually hatching). Needless to say, this one-egg-per-Dodo-Bird policy had disastrous consequences when the macaques owned by Dutch settlers learned how to raid Dodo nests!

06
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The Dodo Bird Didn't "Taste Like Chicken"

A pair of Dodo birds drinking at a river.
Daniel Eskridge/Stocktrek Images / Getty Images

Ironically, considering how indiscriminately they were clubbed to death by Dutch settlers, Dodo Birds weren't all that tasty. Dining options being fairly limited in the 17th century, though, the sailors who landed on Mauritius did the best with what they had, eating as much of the clubbed Dodo carcass as they could stomach and then preserving the leftovers with salt. (There's no particular reason the meat of the Dodo would have been unsavory to human beings; after all, this bird subsisted on the tasty fruits, nuts and roots native to Mauritius.) 

07
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The Closest Relative of the Dodo Bird Is the Nicobar Pigeon

nicobar pigeon
The Nicobar Pigeon. Wikimedia Commons

Just to show what an anomaly the Dodo Bird was, genetic analysis of preserved specimens has confirmed that its closest living relative is the Nicobar Pigeon, a much smaller flying bird that ranges across the southern Pacific. Another relative, now extinct, was the Rodrigues Solitaire, which occupied the Indian Island ocean of Rodrigues and suffered the same fate as its more famous cousin. (Like the Dodo, the Rodrigues Solitaire only laid one egg at a time, and it was completely unprepared for the human settlers that landed on its island in the 17th century.)

08
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The Dodo Was Once Called the "Wallowbird"

dodo bird
Another early sketch of the Dodo Bird. Wikimedia Commons

There was only a short interval between the "official" naming of the Dodo Bird and its disappearance—but an awful lot of confusion was generated during those 75 years. Shortly after its discovery, a Dutch captain named the Dodo the "Walghvogel" (Wallowbird), and some Portuguese sailors referred to it as a penguin (which may have been a mangling of "pinion," meaning "small wing.") Modern philologists aren't even sure about the derivation of "Dodo"—likely candidates include the Dutch word "dodoor," meaning "sluggard," or the Portuguese word "doudo," meaning "crazy." 

09
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There Are Very Few Extant Dodo Bird Specimens

dodo bird
A mummified Dodo Bird. Wikimedia Commons

When they weren't busy hunting, clubbing and roasting Dodo Birds, the Dutch and Portuguese settlers of Mauritius did manage to ship a few living specimens back to Europe. However, most of these unfortunate Dodos didn't survive the months-long journey, and today these once-populous birds are represented by only a handful of remains: a dried head, and a single foot, in the Oxford Museum of Natural History, and fragments of skull and leg bones at the University of Copenhagen Zoological Museum and the National Museum of Prague. 

10
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The Dodo Bird Is Mentioned in "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland"

alice
A scene from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland". Public Domain

Aside from the phrase "as dead as a Dodo," the Dodo Bird's chief contribution to cultural history is its cameo in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, where it stages a "Caucus Race." It's widely believed that the Dodo was a stand-in for Carroll himself, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Take the first two letters of the author's last name, and the fact that Carroll had a pronounced stutter, and you can see why he identified so closely with the long-gone Dodo. 

11
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It May One Day Be Possible to Resurrect the Dodo Bird

dodo bird
Another mummified Dodo Bird. Wikimedia Commons

De-extinction is a scientific program by which we may be able to reintroduce extinct species into the wild. There are (barely) enough preserved remains of the Dodo Bird to recover some of its soft tissues, and thus fragments of Dodo DNA—and the Dodo shares enough of its genome with modern relatives like the Nicobar Pigeon to make surrogate parenting a possibility. Even still, the Dodo is a long shot for successful de-extinction; the Woolly Mammoth and the Gastric-Brooding Frog (to name just two) are much more likely candidates.