The plight of the Dodo teaches us a valuable lesson about the perils of extinction. In reality, the dodo is one of the most well-known cases of human-caused extinction.
Dodos, scientific name Raphus cucullatus, were previously native to Mauritius, an island southeast of Madagascar. Furthermore, they have common ancestry with pigeons and other doves.
Dutch soldiers first spotted dodos in 1600 on an island in the Indian Ocean. Less than 80 years later, they went extinct due to deforestation, hunting, and the devastation of their homes.
After a century, all that was left were a few drawings, textual descriptions, and a modest assortment of bones.
What The Dodo Looked Like
The dodo was a plump, gray-brown bird with small wings, powerful legs, and a massive beak. According to research published in 2004 in Biologist, it grew to be 70 centimeters in height and weighed 13 to 20 kilograms. Dodos were shorter and heavier than current wild turkeys and swans, with males somewhat bigger than females.
Unfortunately, no taxidermied dodos exist since humans wiped off the birds before photography was invented.
Research associate at London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) and paleontologist Julian Pender Hume told Vice that the museum’s so-called taxidermied dodo is just goose and swan plumage. It was only affixed to a plaster replica by a person who has never seen a dodo.
Antique paintings and other art, along with accounts from early Arab and European travelers to Mauritius, are the only sources current academics may turn to for proof of what dodos truly looked like. Unfortunately, these records are not always precise.
The plump dodo shown in so much European art and cartoons is essentially the work of one painter. This was Roelant Savery (1683–1743) of the Dutch Golden Age.
According to Hume, evidence from dodo bones shows that the birds were agile animals. Even able to outpace people across rough terrain. This contradicts the common perception that the birds were sluggish, unintelligent, and clumsy due to Savery’s roly-poly dodo.
Contrary to common belief, the dodo was reasonably clever and probably had a good sense of smell. This was backed up by its huge brain and well-developed olfactory glands, as reported by the NHM.
Where The Dodos Lived
Dodos were native to the volcanic island of Mauritius. It is now part of the nation-state of Mauritius and is located in the subtropical region of the Indian Ocean. Off the southeast coast of Africa is where you’ll find Mauritius, around 1,100 kilometers from Madagascar.
According to the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University, the islands of Mauritius and its neighbors did not have any permanent human settlements. It was not until the Dutch East India Company arrived and stayed there in the 1600s.
By that time, prior travelers to the island had already brought a sufficient number of predators. The dodos could no longer be seen roaming the highlands and coastlines. In later years, a significant portion of the dodo’s woodland habitat was destroyed due to deforestation.
Why The Dodo Underwent Extinction
National Geographic claims that the dodo’s extinction resulted from a perfect storm of factors. This included stagnant evolution and rapid environmental change.
Dodos are highly adapted to their natural habitat in Mauritius. This is where they have been left alone for so long that they have forgotten how to fly. Because of its inability to fly and poor reproductive rate, this species was particularly at risk when explorers suddenly introduced new predators to its previously secluded island habitat.
There were no huge, land-based carnivores on Mauritius for millions of years until human explorers arrived. National Geographic noted that Mauritius’s wildlife had adapted to various ecological niches. Still, the island’s long isolation meant its inhabitants were sluggish to respond to new threats elsewhere.
Dodos, for instance, were reportedly unafraid of the Dutch sailors who arrived on their island beaches in search of food.
Dodos were eaten by more than just humans, though. A 2016 research published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology suggests that a variety of introduced animals, including rats, pigs, goats, and monkeys, likely killed and consumed dodos and their eggs.
Each egg eaten was a female dodo’s only shot at having offspring that year. But those healthy, simple meals were lying on the forest floor, waiting to be picked up by the new island residents.
In a 2006 article for the journal Historical Biology, Hume speculated that foreign species would have completely overrun juvenile and adult dodos for a scarce food source, should any rare eggs have survived and hatched.
What the Conservation Status of the Dodo Was
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature now recognizes the dodo as extinct. However, the official date of the dodo’s demise is up for debate.
According to research published in Nature in 2004, dodo numbers began to decline around 1662—leading to its extinction.
In 2013, Live Science, however, said that there were sightings of dodos on Mauritius as far back as the 1680s. The date of the extinction was estimated using statistical methods and these ranged as far back as the year 1690.
Can We Bring The Dodo Back?
Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and evolutionary molecular scientist Beth Shapiro says the return of the dodo is highly improbable.
According to Shapiro’s interview with Live Science, the dodo is a difficult species to bring back for several reasons, including the difficulty of cloning birds and the lack of suitable habitats.
Most people picture cloning when they hear “de-extinction,” as that was how Dolly the sheep and Elizabeth Ann the black-footed ferret was “created” in 1996 and 2020, respectively. By inserting the genetic material from a living donor adult cell into a recipient egg cell that has had its nucleus removed, cloning produces an exact genetic replica of the donor.
All the DNA required for an organism’s development is found in its adult cells. The DNA is used as a guide by the egg cells to develop into specialized skin, organs, blood, and bone cells.
However, dodo cells are not just extinct but have not existed for centuries. Instead, according to Shapiro, you’d need to begin with the genome of a closely similar species and modify it to match that of a dodo.
In answer to a query from the audience at a Royal Society webcast in 2022, Shapiro unexpectedly revealed that she and her colleagues had sequenced the whole dodo genome. Although academic peers have not yet reviewed the study, Shapiro was surprised by the positive reception it received after her accidental public disclosure. The group hopes to publish its findings eventually.
That said, it’s still possible the dodo won’t make a comeback after its extinction. The complex reproductive systems of birds provide a significant challenge for scientists, even with a completely reconstructed dodo genome.
Even if scientists could bring dodos back from the dead, the island they once called home would be unrecognizable. Reintroducing the dodo into its natural environment would be impossible without significant human intervention due to deforestation, invasive species, and human occupation.