If there’s one thing most people know about the dodo bird, it’s that they were dumb. If they had been human, they would have been the kind of person who changes pants while driving.
Yes, legend has it, this creature was only really ever a danger to itself, a true poster child for The Darwin Awards…at least, that’s the story we’ve been fed.
But is it true? Turns out, the whole story that the dumb dodo got itself hunted to extinction by being so stupid may have been a big load of doodoo.
Leon Claessens, Professor of Vertebrate Paleontology and Evolution at the Netherlands Maastricht University, believes the Dutch sailors who first encountered the bird in 1598 didn’t actually hunt the birds to extinction, though the sailors likely had an indirect role in the demise of the species.
Previously, it was believed the birds were fat, and were hunted for food.But in the dense jungles of their native Mauritius, the bird would have been much leaner than previously thought, and therefore, not as appetizing of a meal.
Further, these jungles would have also made it much harder for the few hundred sailors to catch the birds, regardless of how unafraid the dodos were of human beings.
Claessens believes the real problem was the rats and other animals that would have landed with the sailors.
These animals would have been able to multiply quickly in an unrestricted habitat and would have feasted on dodo eggs and outcompeted them for food, a double-extinction whammy. And then the triple whammy hit: rapid habitat loss. The island of Mauritius was not initially considered very valuable; just a place for ships to stopover.
Some even thought the island was cursed due to a large number of shipwrecks in the area. That all changed when the Dutch realized they could export the island’s ebony wood for sale, which became the island’s primary economic activity.
Not long after, settlers were turning the once-wild island into a big agricultural plantation, leading to heavy deforestation and loss of native plant species.
The forest that provided natural protection for the dodo bird gave way to sugar cane fields, making the birds oversized sitting ducks for any predator who came along, as the dodos literally had no fight or flight reflex. Lack of flight also made dodos ill-suited to surviving natural disasters.
Evidence has been found that even before human settlement, many of the birds died in flash floods brought on by cyclones.Once they lost the natural protection of their sheltered forests, they became even more vulnerable.
The entry for the dodo in the Oxford English Dictionary describes something that is no longer effective, valid, or interesting, and the origin of the word comes from the Portuguese Doudou, translating to simpleton.
It’s a sad legacy for what was once a beautiful, totally innocent creature.Beyond their reputation for stupidity, dodos are a symbol of how quickly and profoundly humans can impact an environment and drive a species to extinction.Until we can clone them, dodos are gone forever, and the best thing we can do about it is to learn from the mistakes of our ancestors.
It only took a hundred years to wipe out the dodo, and while exact dates of extinction vary, most believe the dodo was gone by the 1660s, with other reports claiming they lasted on nearby islands until the 1690s.
In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter much, because either way the bird, and just about every trace of it, is gone forever. All we’ve got are a few records and sketches from sailors, and one or two shoddily stuffed birds in museums.
We’re hardly even sure what color they were. Most paintings from the time show dodos with white feathers, but firsthand accounts describe them with gray to black plumage. Heck, we didn’t even know they had kneecaps until 2014 after a 3D scan of the last remaining skeleton revealed them.
So have we learned our lesson? Not yet, it seems: in another hundred years, it’s estimated that 25 percent of all bird species will be extinct in the wild unless we take big steps to clean up our act. If not, we’ll be the real dodos.