Raphus cucullatusdodo

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Geographic Range

Dodo birds were once the inhabitants of Mauritius, a small, oyster-shaped island which lies approximately 500 miles east of Madagascar. (Britannica, 1986)

  • Biogeographic Regions
  • indian ocean

Habitat

Although many pictures and stories place the dodo along the shores of Mauritius, it was actually a forest-dwelling bird. The island of Mauritius is home to a variety of biomes, such as plains, small mountains, forests, and reefs all along the shores. However, the dodo made its home primarily in the forest. (Fuller, 1987; Britannica, 1986)

  • Aquatic Biomes
  • reef

Physical Description

Our present day knowledge of what the dodo looked like is based on several sources. There are accounts from the diaries and writings of the sailors and captains who landed on Mauritius in the 16th and 17th century, drawings from the few humans who were able to witness them alive (although, it can't even be proven that all the artists who rendered the dodo ever actually saw one). There are a few fossils excavated from the island, which are kept at the British Museum, and a foot and a beak which are preserved at Oxford, but there are no complete stuffed specimens (models in museums are based on partial remains). From these records and pictures, scientists and ornithologists have pieced together a fairly detailed composite of the dodo.

The dodo was a large, plump bird covered in soft, grey feathers, with a plume of white at its tail. It had small wings that were far too weak to ever lift the dodo off the ground. Because it was flightless, those who saw the bird often thought it had no real wings at all, describing them as "little winglets." Study of the skeleton reveals, however, that the dodo did in fact have wings that were simply not used for flight, much like penguins' wings. The dodo's legs were short and stubby and yellow in color. On the end of the legs were four toes, three in front and one acting as a thumb in back, all with thick, black claws. The head was a lighter grey than the body, with small, yellow eyes. Many words have been devoted to the long, crooked and hooked beak, which was light green or pale yellow in color and was one of the most distinguishing features of the dodo. Those who saw it, marveled at the unique shape and size. One witness went so far as to describe it as grotesque. (Strickland and Melville, 1848; Fuller, 1987; Greenway, 1958; Britannica, 1986)

  • Range mass
    13000 to 23000 g
    458.15 to 810.57 oz

Reproduction

Specifics about mating and incubation periods are not known. Several people have described the nests the dodo made as being deep in the forest, in a bed of grass. There, the female would lay one egg, which she would protect and raise. One sailor told about hearing the cries of a young dodo in its nest, which sounded "like that of a young goose." (Fuller, 1987; Greenway, 1958)

Behavior

The sailors who landed on Mauritius found much amusement in watching the clumsy dodo's behavior. There is a story one told of watching a dodo attempt to escape in a hurry. When it tried to run away, (wobble may be a more accurate term), its belly would drag on the ground and slow him down. But for the most part, the dodo is described as a lazy, rather dumb animal. It had virtually no defenses against predators, except for its large beak which could deliever a "fearsome bite" if the occasion arose, such as a threat to itself or its young. (Fuller, 1987; Strickland and Melville, 1848)

Communication and Perception

Food Habits

Scientists thoughts on the diet of the dodo are based mainly on speculation. Some sailors' accounts talk of watching dodos wade into water-pools to catch fish. They have been described as "strong and greedy" hunters. What really fascinated the visitors to Mauritius, however, was the fact that dodos seemed to eat stones and iron frequently and with no trouble. It is now surmised that the rocks eased digestion. (Strickland and Melville, 1848; Fuller, 1987)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The main purpose dodos served to humans, in the brief contact between the two species, was as food. The sailors frequently fed on wildlife from Mauritius while staying there, although it has been said that dodo meat was not particularly tasty. Still, they were hunted intensely, with sailors sometimes bringing back as many as 50 at a time. What they couldn't eat right away they would salt and bring back with them.

A few attempts were made to bring back a dodo alive. When this was sucessful, entreprenuers would capitalize on the unique looks of the bird and tour the dodos around Europe, displaying them in cages and demonstrating how the dodo could "eat" stones. (Strickland and Melville, 1848; Fuller, 1987)

Conservation Status

The first group of sailors believed to have arrived on Mauritius were Portuguese, led by Captain Mascaregnas, in 1507. They had intended to land on the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, but stormy conditions had blown them off course and they ended up finding respite on Mauritius. Several other expeditions, Portuguese, Dutch, British and others, made stops at the island in the following years. In the dodos, the sailors found amusement and, when they were running out of supplies, food.

The Dutch colonized Mauritius in 1644 . Along with groups of people, the ships brought cats, dogs, swine and sometimes monkeys. These animals quickly invaded the woods, trampling the nests and frightening the birds. These domestic creatures also devoured the dodo eggs and young. The interference of the foreign animals coupled with the continued overuse of the birds for food led to its total extinction by 1681. (Strickland and Melville, 1848; Britannica, 1986)

Other Comments

There are two speculations on where the name for the dodo came from. The more accepted source is the Dutch word "dodoor" which mean "sluggard." This word describes both the dodo's looks and appearance. The other speculation is that the name comes from the Portuguese word "doudo" which, meaning foolish or simple. (Strickland and Melville, 1848)

Contributors

Brittany S. Brown (author), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

Glossary

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

reef

structure produced by the calcium carbonate skeletons of coral polyps (Class Anthozoa). Coral reefs are found in warm, shallow oceans with low nutrient availability. They form the basis for rich communities of other invertebrates, plants, fish, and protists. The polyps live only on the reef surface. Because they depend on symbiotic photosynthetic algae, zooxanthellae, they cannot live where light does not penetrate.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

tactile

uses touch to communicate

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 1986. Volumes 4 and 7. Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago.

Fuller, Errol. 1987. Extinct Birds. Facts on File Publications, New York.

Greenway, James C. Jr. 1958. Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World. Americal Committee for International Wild Life Protection, New York.

Strickland, H.E. and Melville, A.G. 1848. The Dodo and Its Kindred. Reeve, Benham, and Reeve, London.