What Even Is A Dodo? – The Bristol Dinosaur Challenge

In the case of iconic animals of extinction, there are none higher identified (or as incessantly name-dropped) than the Dodo. An animal so synonymous with the concept of being extinct that it even turned a saying, “As useless as a Dodo.” However for those who converse to most individuals and ask what they know in regards to the Dodo, that’s just about the place the information begins and ends. Nonetheless, there’s a actual species behind the legend and it holds quite a lot of surprises.

The scientific title of the Dodo is Raphus cucullatus. It’s a reputation that, on studying, makes you sure that the species wouldn’t have achieved fairly as a lot fame if it didn’t have that catchy nickname as nicely. The rationale for the title Dodo comes from the Pokémon faculty of naming organisms; the title we gave it’s the title it gave itself. When first described by the sailors who found the birds, they talked in regards to the low cooing noise they produced; a particular “Do-Do”.

Subsequently, the title alone offers us a small clue about at the least one side of the behaviour of the animal. Such tidbits are helpful when there are not any dwelling examples for us to listen to in the present day. Sadly nevertheless, the one different common nugget of data we gleaned from the sailors of yore was that the chook tasted like rooster. And thus the rationale for his or her extinction is instantly obvious.

A whole lot of the behaviour of the animal could also be a thriller, however, seeing because the Dodo solely went extinct within the 17th century, a time when people have been already a number of centuries deep in our obsessive documenting of the world round us, you’d have thought that we’d have a reasonably good concept of what the animal appeared like at the least. A spherical, squat ball of fluffy feathers with a big beak and relatively easy trying face. It’s a well-recognized picture that everybody has seen in some unspecified time in the future. It’s additionally useless mistaken.

A painting of a dodo showing a rotund build and surrounded by tropical birds.
seventeenth Century Catfishing – This 1626 portray by Roelandt Savery proves that artists ought to by no means be trusted. The tried credit score theft by G. Edwards exhibits that perhaps no one will be.

The Dodo is a part of the pigeon household, having first developed from ancestors not too dissimilar to the pigeons we all know which arrived on the island of Mauritius pretty shortly after it first fashioned (roughly 8 million years in the past). Over millennia, as has occurred time and time once more within the historical past of birds discovering islands, their descendants misplaced the power of flight, making the most of the empty area of interest often occupied by mammals.

Sadly, because the idea of extinction was just about exceptional within the 1600s, no one actually thought to maintain a lot Dodo materials for research. Nonetheless, we do have just a few skeletons, pores and skin samples, and even, famously, a semi-mummified head within the Oxford Museum of Pure Historical past. Sufficient definitely to check the animal and examine outcomes to the well-known work (which, whereas extra up to date to the birds being alive, have been executed by individuals who had seen precisely the identical variety of stay Dodos as us – none).

A medieval painting of a cat with a distinctly human face.
For those who nonetheless assume artists will be trusted to precisely reconstruct up to date animals, I wish to direct your consideration to actually any historic portray of a cat

Time and time once more, research have proven that the chook was a lot leaner and extra upright than most depictions present. The ribcage was slimmer, and the legs extra muscular than stumpy. Actually, the proof means that, if it needed to be, a Dodo might be fairly nippy, scurrying across the forest ground; removed from the oft-seen waddle. Not that this ought to be shocking seeing as we do have stories from sailors of the time saying Dodos have been speedy and infrequently arduous to catch; an account apparently missed by these historic painters.

As for the behaviour of the Dodo, CT scans of the cranium have proven that it wasn’t dumb. Although it ought to be mentioned, it wasn’t notably sensible both. Odds are the Dodo was in all probability a chook of completely common intelligence, and there’s no disgrace in that. This comes after all with the caveat that measuring the mind dimension of extinct animals isn’t a precise proxy for intelligence, however it may at the least give grounds for an excellent estimate.

One factor that may be mentioned with extra certainty in regards to the Dodo’s mind is that it appeared to have a reasonably enlarged olfactory bulb. That’s to say it in all probability relied closely on its sense of odor to find meals; a characteristic frequent in forest ground dwellers who might should rummage via the leaf-litter, the chook equal of a truffle pig.

So, if the true animal was so completely different, how did it get caught with such a picture drawback? The reply, because it nearly by no means is in palaeontology, is Lewis Carroll.

A photograph of Lewis Carroll.
The scurge of palaeontology – daydreaming about making Triceratops into some type of hideous slug (in all probability)

A current research led by Alexandra van der Geer studied how the depictions of Dodos have modified over historical past utilizing scientific methods often reserved for mapping the morphology of various species in an ecosystem. Right here the method was turned on one species alone, and never on the stays themselves, however as a substitute on the historic information of drawings and animated representations of our poor Dodo.

What they discovered was a comparatively reserved unfold at first, adopted by a sudden exponential progress in morphological range within the 20th century. They attributed this to the Dodo in Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ bringing the chook again into the cultural zeitgeist following a interval of relative disinterest. As a tragic instance of the negligence as soon as proven to the world round us, the proof instructed that within the years following the extinction of the chook individuals merely stopped caring about it. As soon as it was gone it was, for some time at the least, completely forgotten.

A figure showing the growth in exaggerated cartoon depictions of Dodos in popular culture following the publication of Alice in Wonderland
The exponential progress of cartoon dodos in our lives (Determine from Van der Geer et al. 2021)

Again within the public eye, the Dodo was open to a myriad of interpretations with loads of inventive licence. One factor about utilizing animals in cartoons is that, for them to be really expressive, it requires an exaggeration of their facial options. For dwelling animals this has no affect on public notion of the true factor, as a result of, nicely, they’ll see them. Go to a zoo as soon as and also you’ll recognise that perhaps 1994’s ‘The Lion King’ isn’t a scientifically correct documentary.

However for the dodo, there was no such comparability available to be made. And so, the one level of reference in existence was that cartoonish fluffball in movies, TV, and comedian strips. The seed of the picture was planted and thus it grew.

On the planet of wildlife, the Dodo has definitely suffered greater than most with a PR drawback. Maybe depicting this animal as clumsy, dim-witted, and destined for failure is a approach of assuaging our personal collective guilt for the human actions which prompted its extinction. Claiming it was doomed from the beginning, a mistake of nature; really, consuming all of them inside a century of first discovering them was the appropriate factor to do, a kindness.

A group of dodos around a tree stump with three watermelons. From the film Ice Age.
The collective guilt of humanity as depicted in Dodos from the Oscar nominated 2002 think-piece ‘Ice Age’

Whatever the method wherein it’s remembered, it might be claimed that it’s a good factor that this species is remembered in any respect. Arguably the Dodo is simply current in frequent information as a result of it’s useless, a degree of fame far larger than it might presumably have achieved in life (except after all it was a selfie darling for Instagram – you Quokka). And fortunately slowly however certainly the information of the Dodo’s true look can also be spreading. Although it must be mentioned, the Dodos themselves would possible discover this a reasonably slim silver lining towards the heavy black cloud of all of them being useless.

A modern reconstruction of a Dodo showing a sleeker figure.
A extra correct fashionable reconstruction of a Dodo by ornithologist Michael Hanson. Unforetunately no reconstruction is correct sufficient to undo extinction.

Rhys Charles is the Engagement Officer for the Earth Sciences division of the College of Bristol, and has headed the Bristol Dinosaur Challenge since 2016. (@tweetodontosaur)

Article edited by Sophie Pollard


Claessens, L., Meijer, H., & Hume, J.P. (2016) The morphology of the Thirioux dodos. Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology. 35, 29-187

Van der Geer, A.A.E., et al. (2021) The altering face of the dodo (Aves: Columbidae: Raphus cucullatus): iconography of the Walghvogel of Mauritius. Historic Biology. 34, 648-657

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *