A new study of bone sections has revealed new information about the life and reproductive cycles of the dodo bird. Because very few skeletal remains of dodo’s have survived, researchers have been reluctant to slice and dice them to use the latest technology that might discover more about a very misunderstood animal. Recent discoveries of bone fragments gave scientists at London’s Natural History Museum and the University of Cape Town a rare opportunity to take a look inside the dodo.
According to evidence in the different layers and types of tissue of the 22 bones examined, the dodo seems to have adapted its lifestyle to Mauritius’s stormy summer, from November to March.
During this period, heavy rain and strong winds can strip trees of leaves, flowers and fruit, causing severe food shortages for the island’s animals.
The dodo bones show repeated lines of arrested growth, which the researchers suggest correspond to the harsh conditions of the summer months when the birds were starved of food. […]
In common with many modern birds living on the island, the breeding season for dodos appears to have begun around August. Once chicks hatched, they grew quickly to almost adult body size, attaining sexual maturity before the stormy summer began.
Moulting began after the summer had passed, around March, with the replacement of the feathers of the wings and the tail. By July, the moult would have been completed and the bird would have had a chance to fatten up, ready for the next breeding season to begin.
The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports and can be read free of charge here.
The dodo has become an icon of species extinction, unfairly painted as a clumsy weirdo who couldn’t find a way to survive, when, as this new evidence underscores, it was very well adapted to its unique environment before people hunted it mercilessly and destroyed its ecosystem. A native species of the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the dodo’s large beak and rotund body gave it something of a comical appearance which has played into the narrative of the goofy bird who just couldn’t hack in the real world.
It was the Dutch they couldn’t survive. Dutch ships first made landfall on Mauritius in 1598. Forty years later, the Dutch established their first settlement to harvest the island’s ebony trees. They also attempted to grow sugar cane and introduced domestic animals and deer. None of these endeavors proved financially successful and the first colony was abandoned two decades years after its founding. Some desultory attempts to colonize the island ensued until the Dutch gave up once and for all in 1710.
They sure left their mark, though. They destroyed the ebony forests, depriving endemic species of their habitat. They slaughtered local birds and turtles for food, and overwhelmed the ones they didn’t eat with competing animal species. One of those local birds was the dodo. The last living one was sighted in 1662 and the Dutch cared not one whit, so little, in fact, that they didn’t even notice that by the early 1690s the entire species was gone, extinguished in less than a century.
For a long time the dodo was considered mythical and the only evidence that it had ever existed were a few drawings made from life by explorers and a smattering of bones. The 19th century saw a sudden surge of interest in the curious bird, but there was so little to go on that scientists had to make do with a few drawings and random body parts. In their 1848 monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred, Strickland and Melville remarked on how difficult scientific study of a bird that had gone extinct less than two centuries earlier was because the source material was so sparse and unreliable.
In the case of the didinae, it is unfortunately no easy matter to collect satisfactory information as to their structure, habits, and affinities. We possess only the rude descriptions of unscientific voyagers, three or four oil paintings, and a few scattered osseous fragments, which have survived the neglect of two hundred years. The paleontologist has, in many cases, far better data for determining the zoological characters of a species which perished myriads of years ago, than those presented by a group of birds, which were living in the reign of Charles the First.
The first dodo fossils were found in 1865, but they were fragmentary. Research based on those finds that was published in science journals still had to rely heavily on speculation to fill in the many unknowns about this bird. Amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux was the first to discover complete or almost complete skeletal remains of dodos during his excavations in Mauritius between 1899 and 1910. Decades after the Dodo became a subject of fascination despite the lack of osteological material bemoaned by Strickland and Melville, Thirioux’s finds made little impact on the scientific community. One Thirioux skeleton, almost complete minus a few bones, wound up in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. The second is in the Mauritius Institute, appropriately enough. The one in the Mauritius Institute is the only complete dodo skeleton known and the only one that is from a single bird. The Durban skeletal is believed to be a composite of two partial dodo skeletons.
Neither museum realized what rare and significant specimens they had until a few years ago when the Natural History Museum’s Dr. Julian Hume sought them out to do the first comprehensive study of dodo anatomy in 150 years. The study was capped off with this nifty 3D laser surface scanning reconstruction of the skeleton at the Durban Natural Science Museum shows a detailed rendering of the bird’s skeletal structure in what scientists now believe is an anatomically accurate position.