The dodo bird … an example of survival of the fittest
Often pictured as a magnificently overweight pigeon-like bird, the last dodo died in the late 1600s. This non-flying bird which allegedly was ‘obviously unfit’ became extinct as evolution would expect, and is often used as a prime example of natural selection and proof of how evolution works. It lived on the small island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, east of Madagascar, and is now known from only bony remains plus a preserved foot and head.
A careful recent examination of the dodo has revealed that many common perceptions about the bird are incorrect.1 In the words of John Maddox, of the journal Nature, ‘the dodo deserves a better press.’2 Studies on more than 400 skeletal dodo relics by Livezy, and the work of Kitchener at the Royal Museum of Scotland, have recently radically changed the common view about the bird. In the words of Kitchener, ‘Rivaling the dinosaurs as a symbol of extinction, the dodo is renown for being slow, stupid and fat. Raphus cucullatus was doomed to extinction from the day it was discovered by hungry Dutch sailors in the forest of Mauritius in 1589. Wasn’t it? Maybe not.’3
He then shows how recent thorough evaluations of the dodo reveal that a number of ideas about it are wrong. Kitchener argues that many centuries-old ideas about the dodo will soon go the way of the dodo itself.
The dodo species consisted of three flightless branches—the dodo of Mauritius, the solitaire of Reunion island, and the Rodriguez solitaire that lived on tiny Rodriguez island.
Mauritius, Reunion and Rodriquez are a group of volcanic upthrust islands located in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and the west coast of Australia. These isolated small islands—Mauritius is only 2,095 square kilometers (809 square miles)—stand alone in a water wilderness thousands of kilometers from any neighbour island or land. In their isolated homeland, the dodoes experienced no animal predators or human hunters to bother them for many years.
The dodoes on Mauritius were discovered in 1507 by the Portuguese, and in only 174 years became extinct. Contemporary accounts claim that men brought as many as 50 large birds on board their ship a day, and often about half were dodoes.4 The slaughter was great because this very ‘remarkable bird … existed in considerable abundance’ on these islands.5
Kitchener concludes that it was not the dodo’s physical inferiority which caused its extinction, but the ‘rats, pigs, and monkeys which arrived with the sailors and pillaged the dodo’s vulnerable ground nests.’6 One extensive study of extinctions concluded that a number of unfortunate factors are responsible for almost all extinctions.7
Actually, all animals that lay eggs near the ground surface are vulnerable, which is why so many birds have become extinct in modern times. Even birds which have a reputation dramatically opposed to the dodo’s, such as the American eagle, have been threatened with extinction for somewhat similar reasons. The passenger pigeon was the most abundant bird in America (more than 20 billion) and was obviously ‘evolutionarily successful,’ yet became extinct by the twentieth century through wanton human destruction and greed.8 The last one died on September 1, 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo in Ohio.9
The image of the dodo, though, makes the point about evolution far more effectively than a similarly threatened bird such as the American eagle, which was saved only through the heroic and deliberate efforts of a large number of individuals.
Myth of the fat dodo
The bird’s obesity, slowness and lack of intelligence are commonly given as reasons for its alleged evolutionary inferiority. Dodoes were for years considered not just large, but grossly overweight—to the point that they not only couldn’t fly, but could hardly run from their enemies. Kitchener, though, in studying the written record, found that the earliest dodo drawings showed rather thin birds—only those drawn later show the familiar pudgy variety.10
He found that thin dodoes were drawn by those who had actually visited Mauritius—the plumper birds were drawn mostly by artists in Europe. More than a dozen original pictures (both drawings and paintings) of the dodo now exist.11
Kitchener next evaluated the hundreds of dodo bones that have been unearthed. Using methods developed by criminologists and archaeologists to reconstruct flesh on bones, he was able to determine that the skeletal pattern produced a bird ‘remarkably similar to the first drawing of the dodo.’ Namely the thinner birds.
He concluded that ‘according to four different methods, all based on the dodo’s bones, the famous flightless pigeon weighed between 10.6 and 17.5 kilograms.’12 Evaluation of the cantilever strength of leg bones produces a relationship which can be used to determine the running abilities of different sized animals. This method revealed good evidence for the conclusion that they were indeed ‘swift of foot’—a conclusion which corresponds with eyewitness accounts which stated that the dodo ‘could run very fast.’13
While this analysis is not without problems, it has produced eminently reasonable conclusions, especially since the opposite thesis has little empirical evidence in its favour. Since Kitchener’s first evaluation, original unpublished dodo drawings completed between 1601 and 1602 were rediscovered in a museum in The Hague, the Netherlands. These showed that Kitchener’s conclusions were correct—the dodo was thinner and the femur design was tilted downwards, reducing the bending forces on it and allowing it to shift its center of gravity.14
This evidence demonstrates that the dodo was an effective, fast runner. Kitchener concludes, ‘for more than 350 years the dodo has been thoroughly misrepresented as plump and immobile. The reality is, however, that in the forests of Mauritius it was lithe and active. Like other Mauritian birds it would have undergone a seasonal fat cycle to overcome shortages of food, but never to the extent that those wonderful oil paintings suggest.’15
The last survivors
Since the birds were easy to capture, Dutch colonists, along with sailors and visitors, soon consumed most of the dodo population. Animals they brought with them, especially dogs, cats, and pigs, ate the fledglings and broke the dodo eggs to consume the yolks. By 1681, the dodoes were all gone.
Rather than demonstrate the weakness of the dodo, their history effectively demonstrates the gross irresponsibility of their caretakers. According to Panati, ‘not a single naturalist had attempted to mate any of the captive dodoes; they left no descendants.’16 The last dodo in England was stuffed by English naturalist John Tradescant. When Tradescant died in 1662, his entire natural history collection was bequeathed to an acquaintance, Elias Ashmole. Because of his irresponsibility, the entire collection’s condition greatly deteriorated, and he donated the bird to Oxford University in 1683—two years after the last living dodo was seen on Mauritius. Even Oxford did not take very good care of the bird, and except for the head and foot saved by a farsighted curator, it was later burned as trash in 1755.17 Evidently ‘the museum’s board of directors took one look at the dusty, stupid-looking bird and unanimously voted to discard it.’18
The intrigue over the bird was such that by 1800 ‘professional naturalists were casting doubt on written descriptions of the bird, as well as on extant drawings … it became scientific vogue to deny the bird’s existence and to challenge the Oxford head and foot as fakes.’19 If it was a genuine bird, the critics reasoned, certainly there would have been extensive efforts to preserve it—or at least a good skeleton.
Search for evidence
A group of zoologists searched in 1850 for evidence, to the extent of traveling to Mauritius looking for bones—and found none. Soon the dodo was denounced as a scientific fraud.20 Evidence did not surface until a resident of Mauritius, George Clark, searched the island and in time discovered numerous scattered bones. His specimens were soon shipped to major museums, and after study were pronounced authentic.
These researchers later attempted to assemble the bone fragments—many in poor condition—into complete dodo skeletons. They are now regarded as real animals, but the many other myths surrounding them have died slowly. These myths were widely believed because they seemed to support the idea of evolutionary naturalism.
Now that the bird has been extensively studied, we realize that the facts do not support the evolutionary myth, but do support the moral bankruptcy of humankind.
- Paul Hoffman, New and Improved Dodo, Discover 12(4), p. 16, April 1991.
- John Maddox, Bringing the extinct dodo back to life, Nature, p. 291, 23 September 1993.
- Andrew C. Kitchener, Justice at last for the dodo, New Scientist, p. 24, 28 August 1993.
- James C. Greenway, Extinct and Vanishing Birds of the World, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1967.
- Philip Henry Gosse, The Romance of Natural History, James Nisbet and Co., London (England), p. 74, 1861.
- Ref. 3.
- David M. Raup, Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck?, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1991.
- Jerry Dennis, What happened to the passenger pigeon?, Science Annual, Franklin Watts, New York, pp. 202-205, 1993; Doreen Buscemi, There will be pigeons as long as the world lasts, American History Illustrated 13(5), pp. 11-16, August 1978.
- Allan W. Eckert, The Silent Sky: The Incredible Extinction of the Passenger Pigeon, Landfall Press, Dayton (Ohio), 1965.
- Ref. 3.
- Willy Ley, The Lunghsh, the Dodo, and the Unicorn: An Excursion into Romantic Zoology, The Viking Press, New York, p. 230, 1948.
- Ref. 3, p. 26.
- Andrew C. Kitchener, On the external appearance of the dodo, Raphus culcullatus, (L., 1758), Archives of Natural History 20(2), p. 296, 1993.
- Ibid., pp. 297-299.
- Ref. 3, p. 27.
- Charles Panati; Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Harper & Row, New York, p. 203, 1989.
- David Wallechinsky and Irving Wallace, The People’s Almanac #3, Bantam Books, New York, p. 361, 1981.
- Ref. 16, p. 203.