January 30, 2013

Wildlife Wednesday: The Dodo Bird

Where did the Dodo get its name?  When visitors to the island of Mauritius, off the coast of Africa, first saw the bird they thought its friendly approach meant the bird was dumb. 

The Dodo is gray in color and may have been a relative of the pigeon family. It had a large, hooked beak and white feathers attached to its tail. This wingless bird had no enemies on the island and was safe living on the ground. In 1581, when dogs and pigs were brought onto the island, things changed. Man introduced other new species and started hunting the dodo bird. Eventually, the dodo became extinct. Although the exact date isn't certain, people believe these birds were last seen around 1681.

The exact appearance of the dodo is in question. They existed before cameras. We can only rely upon anecdotal accounts and the sketches of amateur naturalists. For a long time, there were no complete skeletons, and the closest thing historians had was the leg and head of one individual. All other skeletons were composites, made from the bones of many birds. In June 2007 that changed. Explorers discovered a cave with a complete dodo skeleton inside. Although we now have a better idea of the bird's physical structure, its coloring, plumage and girth are still in doubt.

Paintings of the Dodo show a stout bird. However, these paintings may be more fanciful than exact as the fashion in the 17th century was to exaggerate animals, making them plumper and more colorful than they were. Live dodos in captivity were remarked to be "greedy" animals. Perhaps the specimens brought back to Europe and painted were fatter than their wild counterparts because of improper diet and lack of exercise. Regardless of artistic interpretation, the dodo was impressive, standing 3 feet tall and weighing about 50 lbs. It possessed a large head and a heavy, hooked beak. Its wings were stubby, and its legs thick. A plume of white feathers decorated its rump. Nothing is reported of the dodo's mating habits, behaviors or life expectancy.

-Dodo birds are related to pigeons. How strange that a bird so well known for its extinction should be related to a bird so well known for its over population.

- A dodo rampant is on the Mauritius Coat of Arms.

- It is believed that the loss of the dodo directly caused the near extinction of the tambalacocque, or dodo tree. The dodo tree's seeds would only germinate after passing through the digestive system of the dodo. Further experimentation showed that the seeds did germinate without the birds abrading them, but only rarely. To help with this trees survival, botanists now pass the seeds through the digestive track of turkeys.

- The word "dodo" is slang for "a dull-witted, slow-reacting person." For a while, people believed the bird's demise came about because of its own stupidity. It approached people with clubs. But remember, the dodo had no natural enemies and was not displaying stupidity, but curiosity.

- In Lewis Carroll's book, Alice in Wonderland, the Dodo is a solemn and wise bird.





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