The Mauritius Dodo - Raphus Cuculattus:
This friendly and curious bird evolved with no natural predators for over 4,000,000 years and was free to evolve flightless (having very small wings with a few long feathers on the tips) and naive, making its nest on the ground and laying only a single, large egg in nests described by one early visitor as "a pyramid of palm leaves 18 inches high". The nests were incubated by each parent in turn and the young were slow to mature. It is believed that the average life span of the Dodo could have been as much as 30 years. They were not accustomed to running from anyone, much less hungry sailors wanting to club them for food or take them back to Europe for exhibition and would approach anything that landed on the island with a child-like curiousity. One visitor to the island went so far as to describe the bird as "disgusting" and "grotesque". They could occasionally be seen wading into water pools to catch fish with their very large and curved beaks or eating fruit off of the ground that had fallen from the many fruit-bearing trees close to their nests.
Unfortunately, the main purpose of the Dodo for the sailors and settlers on Mauritius was food. Though Dodo meat was said by many not to be particularly tasty, there was plenty of it. Some reports state that as many as 50 Dodo were brought back to a ship at any one time. Whatever was not eaten immediately was salted and stored away. There were only a few attempts to take living Dodo back to Europe and even then they were used mostly for entertainment purposes and not for scientific study. One story tells of a barkeep having a Dodo in a cage in his tavern and feeding it stones for his customers' amusement. It was later surmised that the Dodo would keep small stones in its gullet for helping with digestion (as many other birds have been known to do).
There were only two other birds anywhere on Earth that were closely related to, though distinctively different than the Dodo: the Solitaires of the neighbouring islands of Reunion and Rodrigues. It is believed by some scientists that all three of these birds evolved from African fruit pigeons that landed on the islands and, having no natural predators and abundant supplies of food, they gradually lost their ability to fly and became the flightless columbiforms of which I speak. Thusly, the Mauritius Dodo, the Reunion Solitaire and Rodrigues Solitaire happily and innocently walked right up to the people who both directly and indirectly caused their extinction.
There were several factors leading to the Dodo's extinction: deforestation, excessive hunting and the introduction of feral animals not indigenous to the region including rats, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys and goats, all of which grew fond of either the Dodo or its eggs to dine on or simply accidentally trampled Dodo nests in passing. Later, the Dutch colonized Mauritius, using it as a penal colony and brought several of the forementioned foreign mammals to the island with them. As more and more of the non-indigenous mammals would escape and turn feral they quickly spelled out the Dodo's demise. The last known Dodo in existence died in 1681 at the hands of a Dutch settler. Similar situations to this one happened on Reunion and Rodrigues, causing the Solitaires native to those islands to die out not long after the fate of the Dodo was sealed (in 1746 and 1790 respectively).
Reports of live Dodo sightings on Mauritius in the 1990s prompted William J. Gibbons to head two expeditions to seek them out. None were ever found. Much of what was left of the formerly dense forests of Mauritius were cleared away in the 1800s and replaced with tea and sugar plantations. There were 45 different species of birds originally found on Mauritius, of which 21 remain today. All that remains of the Dodo today are sketches, paintings, a few bones and fragments here and there kept in museums and a single complete skeleton made up from the bones of several individuals.
As if all of this were not bad enough, the story is not yet over. Although the last Dodo was killed by a human in 1681, we are only now beginning to comprehend its long-term effects on the Mauritian ecosystem. There are currently 13 Calvaria trees left on Mauritius (the only place on Earth these trees have ever existed), the last one having germinated just over 300 years ago. The average lifespan of a Calvaria tree is about 300 years. Keeping this in mind, that means that the last 13 Calvaria trees would die off soon unless it could be discovered how the trees reproduced. If you guessed that the Dodo had something to do with this, you would be quite correct. Calvaria fruit gets ripe and falls earthward like that of any other fruit-bearing tree but its seeds remain dormant while inside the fruit. The Dodo would come along and eat the fruit and only by passing through the Dodo's digestive system would the seeds become active, allowing new trees to grow. Thankfully, some creative people have gotten together and discovered that domestic turkey gullets sufficiently mimic the Dodo's digestive system and have begun a new generation of seedlings nicknamed "Dodo trees". Should these seedlings survive, the species will live on.
Any thoughts on this matter? Please e-mail me and let me know.
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