The Life of the Dodo Revealed
The hapless Dodo was driven to extinction approximately 350 years ago. This was a time when there was little intercontinental travel or research into wildlife. It was long before the advent of photography too and so, until recently, little has been known of these mysterious and legendary creatures. The phrase "as dead as a dodo" springs to mind!
To make matters worse, there used to be many specimens held in European museums, but most were lost or destroyed in the Victorian era.
Now, scientists are managing to piece together the available clues about the life of the dodo which was a native of Mauritius. Delphine Angst of the University of Cape Town, South Africa, has been given access to some of the dodo bones which still exist including several pieces which have been donated by a French museum. Angst and her team have been able to analyse bone from 22 different birds to discover more about their growth and breeding patterns.
The researchers have found that the dodos hatched in August and grew rapidly to their adult size. They were able to deduce this from the growth patterns in the bones. The rapid growth would have been key to surviving the period between November and March when cyclones would strike Mauritius leading to a scarcity of food. But the dodo probably took several years to reach sexual maturity. This quirk of evolution was probably due to the birds having no natural predators.
The birds shed their feathers in March to reveal fluffy black plumage of a type mentioned by sailors who visited the island before the birds became extinct. The sailors offered conflicting accounts of the dodo with some mentioning the fluffy black plumage and others speaking of grey feathers. We can now see these contradictory reports were due to a change in the dodo’s appearance in March.
The bones of adult birds show signs of mineral loss and it is this which suggests that they lost old and damaged feathers after the breeding season.
The new research also sheds light on the reasons for the dodo’s extinction just 100 years after humans settled on Mauritius. Hunting was certainly a factor in the bird’s demise but their fate was probably sealed by the animals released on the island by the arriving ships. The monkeys, deer, pigs and rats would have preyed on the nests of the dodo which were built on the ground.
We will probably never completely unravel the mystery of the Dodo but it looks likely that this fascinating creature’s demise can be laid at the door of mankind. Perhaps more information will eventually emerge. More importantly, we must heed the lessons that can be learnt from the fate which befell the legendary dodo.