The Mauritian dodo
Take a peek at any local market or trinket store (or airport store for that matter) in Mauritius and you will notice one recurring image in particular; that of the fascinating dodo bird. Synonymous with Mauritius, the only place in the world that dodos existed naturally, the somewhat awkward looking, and sadly extinct, bird doesn’t only feature on tourist trinkets but this much-adored symbol of Mauritius is also represented in the Mauritian coat of arms. But where did the dodo come from, what do we know about it and how did it go extinct? Here’s everything you need to know about the Mauritian dodo:
The dodo is said to be related to the pigeon
The dodo, which is believed to have existed some 300 years ago, was an incredible and unusual flightless bird that is said to have been related to pigeons and doves. It’s theorised that at some point in the Pleistocene epoch, a flock of pigeons flew a little of track and, having gotten quite lost, landed on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. With no natural predators, the pigeons prospered and evolved over hundreds and thousands of years into the dodo bird. Believed to be quite different in physical appearance from pigeons, dodos were said to be just under a metre tall and weigh about 23kgs on average.
The dodo was endemic to Mauritius
Because of its unusual story of origin, the dodo bird was exclusively endemic to Mauritius, living in a peaceful paradise for many years until the arrival of the Dutch settlers who are believed to be some of the first, if not the first, people to have discovered this bird when they set foot on Mauritius in 1598. Approximately 75 years later, the dodo was completely extinct (and so the expression, “as dead as a dodo” was born), the last sighting of the bird having been recorded as being in 1662. Before humans came to Mauritius the dodos lived an easy life, with very few other animals on the island and practically no threats. In fact, there were no predatory animals of any kind, which meant that when they evolved, they evolved without natural defenses.
It is believed that the dodos were so incredibly trusting that they would casually and curiously saunter up to the settlers who saw them, understandably, as easy prey. The Dutch also brought with them a number of different animals—from dogs and cats to rats and monkeys; suddenly, the dodos had a huge list of predators and they found themselves perilously close to the bottom of the food chain.
The Dodos were awkward, flightless birds
Reminiscent of a turkey, dodos were very much flightless birds. In fact, because they had evolved from pigeons they are deemed to be secondarily flightless. Because of the energy it takes to fly, the ability to do is only favoured in evolution when it’s necessary, and for these birds that literally landed in paradise—where food, shelter and water were plentiful and predators were non-existent—they no longer needed the ability to fly and joined the likes of chickens and ostriches in the ranks of flightless birds.
Some argue that dodos might have been monogamous
Dodos were said to be loyal to each other and dedicated parents to their young, perhaps because they had so few. Unlike many other bird species, the dodos evolved to only lay one egg at a time. Because they had no natural predators, having one egg at a time made sense for the species but later led to their downfall; the monkeys (macaques) and rats that were brought to the island by the Dutch, started raiding the dodo nests (which were on the ground). The combination of a slow reproduction rate and the sudden introduction of predators was disastrous for the dodo species and one of the reasons they disappeared so quickly.
Many believe they weren’t even tasty
Despite the rapid rate at which the Dutch killed the dodos, the idea that dodos probably just tasted “like chicken” is apparently very far from the truth. However, given the lack of variety of meat in Mauritius in the 17th century, the Dutch would make the most of this naive bird and would generally eat as much of it as possible.
The closest living thing to the dodo is the Nicobar Pigeon
One of the most fascinating things that scientists have discovered about the dodo is that genetically (samples have been taken from preserved specimens and tested), its closest living relative today is the Nicobar Pigeon—a stunning multi-coloured flying bird that is, interestingly, considerably smaller than the dodo and found in the southern Pacific.
One of the dodos other relatives, the Rodrigues Solitaire, another bird which is unfortunately extinct, closely resembled the dodo but was smaller in appearance. Having come from Rodrigues, one of the other Mascarene islands, it shared a similar evolution and fate; their contact with humans combined with low numbers of eggs and a lack of natural predators ultimately served as the major downfall of the species.
These birds once went by another names
The dodo bird was given many names before ‘dodo’ was finally locked down—a very short time before the bird went extinct. The plethora of names for this poor bird brought about a fair amount of confusion. The hapless bird was initially called the “Waldvogel” (which translates from Dutch into “Wallowbird”), some of the Portuguese referred to it as a penguin (or possibly “pinion” which means small wing). The actual root of the word is unclear, but some suggest that it might have come from a Dutch word, "dadoor" which translates into “sluggard” or the Portuguese “doudo” which translates into “crazy”. Many people feel that the dodo was also a stupid bird (perhaps because of how they used to just walk up to the Dutch who would then kill them), but recent research has actually proven that they might have been as intelligent as their pigeon relatives.
The dodo features in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Interestingly, despite being an extinct bird from a small island in the Indian Ocean, the dodo is mentioned and even has a tiny role when it stages a “Caucus Race” in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Many believe that the dodo in Lewis Caroll’s book was meant to symbolise the writer himself, whose real name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, combined with his stutter (and the result of his name said with a stutter) could be the reason he related to this fascinating bird.
There are very few dodo specimens left today
While the Dutch and the Portuguese tried to take some of the dodo birds back to Europe with them, few of them survived the journey and today, the only proof of this bird’s existence in Europe is a few remains. Not even in Mauritius can you see a full skeleton from a single dodo, but the dedicated dodo exhibit in the National History Museum in Port Louis shows what the dodo skeleton might have looked like (this was constructed using real fossils found from multiple birds) alongside an array of fascinating sketches.
If you would like to see the dodo in as close to their local habitat as is possible, then head to the exciting museum in Port Louis, or simply navigate the gorgeous jungle-like areas and sublime pristine beaches in Mauritius and imagine what life might have been like for these interesting creatures. Looking for a place to stay? Then look no further than one of the stunning luxury Sun Resorts, where incredible food, signature hospitality and phenomenal surrounds will ensure that you have the holiday of a lifetime.