The dodo has caught the imagination of people ever since if first went extinct some 400 years ago, not least for the cautionary tale it tells. But despite the massive levels of attention garnered by the squat creature, much of the bird’s life has been shrouded in mystery.
Now, new research is shedding light on the plump bird’s life history, revealing when it probably laid its eggs and even that it likely molted not long after the rainy season had swept its island home. Interestingly, the information gleaned from studying the dead birds’ bones also match up nicely with what sailors at the time reported about the dodo, and which until now had seemed contradictory.
The dodo spent a blissful few million years living isolated on the tropical island of Mauritius. With no predators around and a plentiful supply of fruit, its pigeon ancestor descended to the forest floor and stayed there, making a living among the giant tortoises and giant skinks. But that island paradise was soon to be brought crashing to the ground, as humans made landfall and found the birds tasty and easy to catch.
Coupled with the introduction of pigs, monkeys, and rats, all of which had a penchant for the eggs of the ground nesting bird, and the dodo’s fate was sealed. Within 100 years of discovery, the dodo was no more. The rapidity of this extinction meant that, while a few birds were shipped overseas, very little information actually survives as to how the bird lived, what it ate, or even how it looked.
Writing in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers have turned to the bones of the enigmatic birds, which contain clues as to how the bird grew, matured, and reproduced. They found that dodo chicks probably hatched in August, before growing very rapidly to adult size. The scientists suggest that this was most likely to give them a survival advantage when cyclones tend to hit the island between November and March.
Following the wet season, the birds then apparently molted, shedding their feathers to reveal an underlying fluffy gray plumage, before the outer quills grew back in. Fascinatingly, this clears up conflicting accounts by sailors of what the dodo actually looked like. It had various been described as having dark black or brown feathers, or as light gray and fluffy, and now the researchers suspect that all accounts had indeed been accurate, but simply describing the dodo in different states of molting.
This work has given us more new information and understanding about the ecology of the mysterious dodo than has been achieved over the last few hundred years. By grasping how the bird lived and grew while on Mauritius, the researchers hope to better understand the exact factors that led to its extinction.