11 Things We Know About the Dodo

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The first thing one must accept when trying to learn about the dodo is that we'll probably never know that much about the flightless bird, which died out over 300 years ago in one of the first—if not the first—man-made extinctions. Still, careful study of surviving documents and specimens, as well as a little science, have revealed a bit about the dodo. 

1. THE DODO LIVED ON MAURITIUS.

A map of the Mascarene Islands, circa 1780: Reunion (then Ile. Bourbon, left), Mauritius (then Ile. de France, center) and Rodrigues (right). Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Part of a chain of three islands east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, Mauritius was discovered by the Portuguese in 1507; they set up a base but soon abandoned the island. But it was the Dutch who named it, after Prince Maurice van Nassau, in 1598—which was also when they found the dodo. Vice Admiral Wybran van Warwijck described the bird in his journal: 

Blue parrots are very numerous there, as well as other birds; among which are a kind, conspicuous for their size, larger than our swans, with huge heads only half covered with skin as if clothed with a hood. These birds lack wings, in the place of which 3 or 4 blackish feathers protrude. The tail consists of a few soft incurved feathers, which are ash coloured.

In 1634, Sir Thomas Herbert (who had visited Mariutius in 1627) described the dodo in his book A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille into Afrique and the Greater Asia:

First here only ... is generated the Dodo … her body is round and fat, few weigh less than fifty pound. It is reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomackes may seeke after them, but to the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment. Her visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body to be guided with complementall wings, so small and impotent, that they serve only to prove her bird. The halfe of her head is naked seeming couered with a fine vaile, her bill is crooked downwards, in midst is the trill [nostril], from which part to the end tis a light green, mixed with pale yellow tincture; her eyes are small and like to Diamonds, round and rowling; her clothing downy feathers, her train three small plumes, short and inproportionable, her legs suiting her body, her pounces sharpe, her appetite strong and greedy. Stones and iron are digested, which description will better be conceived in her representation.

He drew the bird, too.

2. ITS MONIKER CAME FROM THE PORTUGUESE.

The Dutch called it walghvodel, or "disgusting bird," because of the toughness of its flesh. "The longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated," van Warwijck wrote in 1598. But the name that stuck, according to Clara Pinto-Correia in her book Return of the Crazy Bird, was derived from the ancient Portuguese word dondo (the modern word is doido) meaning idiot or fool. Pinto-Correia also says that by the end of the 17th century, there were a staggering 78 words for the bird. It had a number of scientific names—Carl Linneaus tried to name it Didus ineptus, or "inept dodo," in 1766—but the one that stuck was Raphus cucullatus (Latin for "bustard" and "hooded," respectively), which was given to the dodo in 1760.

3. IT MAY HAVE BEEN MONOGAMOUS.

It was described as "loyal to its mate and dedicated to its chicks." They also may have lain only one egg at a time in ground nests. That slow reproduction (as well as the fact that the eggs made for easy meals for predators) spelled disaster for the species.

4. THOUGH PLACID AND UNAFRAID OF HUMANS, THE DODO WAS CAPABLE OF DEFENDING ITSELF.

In Crazy Bird, Pinto-Correia relates the slaughter of the dodos, which was occurring long before anyone settled at Mauritius; in one account, sailors killed as many as 25 birds to bring back to the ship. But there is one description of the birds fighting back: "One sailor wrote that if the men were not careful, the birds inflicted severe wounds upon their aggressors with their powerful beaks," Pinto-Correia writes.

5. DODOS WENT TO EUROPE.

No one knows for sure how many—Julian Pender Hume, an avian paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London, estimates that four or five were shipped with only one or two arriving alive, while others estimate that as many as 14 or 17 birds may have made the trip. But there is evidence at least a few made it there alive. One may have been brought to Europe by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck, who sent the bird to Prague and Hapsburg Rudolf II, monarch of Austria and King of Bohemia and Hungary, in 1600 (more on that in a bit).

Theologian and writer Sir Hamon L'Estrange saw one dodo, displayed as a public attraction, in London in 1683. He wrote:

It was kept in a chamber, and was a great fowle somewhat bigger than the largest Turkey Cock, and so legged and footed, but stouter and thicker and of a more erect shape, coloured before like the breast of a young cock fesan, and on the back a dunn or deare colour. The keeper called it a Dodo, and in the ende of a chymney in the chamber there lay a heape of large pebble stones, wherof hee gave it many in our sight, some as big as nutmegs, and the keeper told us she eats them (conducing to digestion).

6. THE DODO WAS ILLUSTRATED AS FAT AND AWKWARD, BUT IT (PROBABLY) WASN'T.

When we imagine a dodo, we often think of a depiction from one painting in particular—the one at the top of this post. It was created by Rudolf II's one-time court painter, Roelandt Savery, in 1626 (and gifted to the British Museum by George Edwards in 1759). According to Pinto-Correia, Savery left the court after Rudolf's death and afterward often painted the bird from memory, which probably led to inaccuracies. It's also not known if Savery painted a live bird or created his paintings from contemporary accounts and dead specimens.

At any rate, scientists believe the birds were probably drawn from overfed captive subjects or from overstuffed specimens; it's also possible that in the wild, the birds' weight fluctuated dramatically depending on the availability of food.

The first reconstruction of a dodo was put together in 1865 by Richard Owen at the Natural History Museum using fossilized bones and an outline of the bird from one of Savery's paintings. His reconstruction and a scientific description were published, but three years later, Owens realized he had been wrong. It was too late to change public perception, though. Modern evidence suggests that the dodo would have been more upright, with a thinner neck and breast—because flightless birds don't need large muscles in the breast.

7. THE LAST DODO WAS SEEN IN JULY 1681.

Englishman Benjamin Harry, first mate on the British vessel Berkeley Castle, was the last person to spot a dodo on Mauritius and write about it:

Now having a little respitt I will make a little descripti: of ye island first of its Producks and yns of itts parts—ffirst of winged and feathered ffowle ye less passant, are Dodos whose fflesh is very hard, a small sort of Geese reasona...

Sometime after that—just eight decades after the Dutch landed—the bird succumbed to exctinction brought on by hunting, habitat destruction, and the introduction of invasive species like rats and pigs.

8. THERE ARE NO COMPLETE SPECIMENS FROM A SINGLE BIRD.

The dodo skeletons you see at museums have been assembled from sub-fossilized remains. At one point, though, there was a complete specimen. The bird belonged to John Tradescant and was gifted to the Oxford University Natural History Museum in the 1680s. Today, only the head—which still has soft tissue—and the foot remain; the museum burned the rest of the bird on January 8, 1755 because of severe decay, unaware that it was the last complete specimen in the world.

9. AND MANY PEOPLE DIDN'T BELIEVE IT ACTUALLY EXISTED.

You can hardly blame naturalists living 150 years after the dodo's extinction for believing it was a creature made up by sailors. As Hugh Edwin Strickland and Alexander Melville wrote while making their case for the existence of the bird in The Dodo and Its Kindred, published in 1848:

So rapid and complete was their extinction that the vague descriptions given of them by early navigators were long regarded as fabulous or exaggerated, and these birds … became associated in the minds of many person with the Griffin and the Phoenix of mythological antiquity.

10. IT WAS BASICALLY A BIG PIGEON.

During its life and after its extinction, scientists couldn't make up their minds just what kind of bird the dodo was—they grouped it with chickens, vultures, eagles, penguins, or cranes. But a few scientists, including Johannes Theodor Reinhardt, Hugh Edwin Strickland, Alexander Gordon Melville, and Samuel Cabot, thought the bird more closely resembled young pigeons—and they were right. In 2007, biologist Beth Shapiro performed analysis on a DNA sample carefully extracted from the leg bone of the Oxford remains and found that the dodo is a distant relative of the pigeon.

11. IT HAD TWO COUSINS THAT ALSO WENT EXTINCT.

Wikimedia Commons

One was the solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius)—so named because it was rarely seen with other birds—a gray and brown flightless bird with a long neck, about the size of a swan, that lived on Rodrigues. It was wiped out by the 1760s. The other was the so-called "white dodo" of Réunion (Didus borbonicus, later called the Réunion Sacred Ibis,Threskiornis solitarius), a yellowish-white bird with black-tipped wings. In an account from 1614 (published in 1626), English sailor John Tatton described the bird as "a great fowl of the bigness of a Turkie, very fat, and so short-winged that they cannot fly, being white, and in a manner tame … In general these birds are in such abundance in these islands that ten sailors can amass in one day enough to feed fourty." At least a couple of the birds were shipped to Europe in 1685, but after that, there are no more accounts; in an 1801 survey of Réunion, none of the birds were found.

Buy Clara Pinto-Correia's book, Return of the Crazy Bird—an invaluable resource for this article—for more about the dodo.

It’s Easy Being Green: Most Amphibians Are Biofluorescent, Study Finds

An alpine newt glows green after being exposed to blue light.
An alpine newt glows green after being exposed to blue light.
Jennifer Y. Lamb and Matthew P. Davis

If you walk through a forest at night, you see only darkness and shadows, and perhaps the smudgy outline of trees against the sky. But if you were a salamander snuggled in the leaf litter, under the right light conditions, you might see something completely different: foliage glimmering in shades of red, and your fellow amphibians glowing in brilliant greens.

Biofluorescence—in which animals emit a fluorescent glow after absorbing high-energy wavelengths of light—is likely widespread among most, if not all, amphibians, according to a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports. Previously, only one species of salamander and three frog species were known to biofluoresce.

Alpine newt under white light
The same view of an alpine newt under white light
Jennifer Y. Lamb and Matthew P. Davis

“I do field work, so I’m out there capturing species of amphibians, and I think, ‘huh, I wonder if this fluoresces,’” says Jennifer Y. Lamb, an assistant professor of biology at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. She and co-author Matthew P. Davis, an assistant professor at the university, collected representatives from eight of the 10 salamander families, five families of frogs, and one family of caecelians, a type of limbless amphibian. They exposed each critter to high-energy blue light and then viewed them through a yellow filter to see if and how they glowed.

“One of the first salamanders we tested was the Eastern tiger salamander. We saw that it fluoresced really brightly, and that kind of got us hooked,” Lamb tells Mental Floss. “We started [to look] across salamander diversity, [and asked ourselves], ‘OK, how many species do we see within salamanders that biofluoresce?’ When we started to notice, ‘hey, it’s actually a lot of them!’, the question became, ‘can frogs do it?’ Then we looked at a relative of frogs, the caecelians—‘do they do it?’ And it seemed like biofluorescence in some form or fashion is present in all of these lineages.”

Biofluorescent salamander
A biofluorescent Eastern tiger salamander
Jennifer Y. Lamb and Matthew P. Davis

The various amphibians fluoresced in unique patterns depending on their skin’s coloration and markings as seen under normal white light. Some gleamed in blotches, others in stripes. A few animals' bones glowed. Lamb was surprised to see that salamanders’ bellies, which were usually red or orange under white light, glowed brighter than their backs after exposure to blue light.

“A lot of these newts have evolved what we call aposematic coloration, or warning colors. When they’re threatened by a predator, they’ll basically contort their bodies to show off their bellies as a warning,” Lamb says. “So it begs the question, if these bellies are also biofluorescent, then maybe some of their predators can visualize biofluorescence.”

The researchers intend their study to be a roadmap for further study into the fascinating ability. “Now that we know that this phenomenon exists across amphibians, there’s all kinds of interesting applications that future researchers may head towards,” Davis tells Mental Floss. For example, no one yet knows what kind of mechanisms allow amphibians to biofluoresce: In some groups it might be a color-based molecule or compound; in others, maybe something in their mucus.

Biofluorescent frog
A Cranwell's frog glows under blue light.
Jennifer Y. Lamb and Matthew P. Davis

Scientists also don’t know exactly how different amphibians might visualize their own biofluorescence. Salamanders, frogs, and caecelians have rod cells in their eyes that are sensitive to green light, suggesting that they may have evolved green biofluorescence and the ability to see it at the same time, though further research is needed on that front.

“We have to be careful about not falling into the trap of only perceiving the world through our own eyes,” Lamb says. “Human vision is set to a particular set of wavelengths, and that’s not the case across all animal diversity. And that may not be the case in terms of these amphibians.”

Biofluorescent salamander
A biofluorescent three-lined salamander
Jennifer Y. Lamb and Matthew P. Davis

Finally, researchers are debating what purpose biofluorescence serves. In other animals, scientists have suggested it could play a role in communication, camouflage, or choosing a mate. Amphibians might use biofluorescence to locate each other in dense leaf litter.

“We’re hoping this study stimulates researchers to start looking at biofluorescence more broadly across the various different kinds of amphibian lineages that they may work on, so we can fill in the gaps in knowledge,” Davis says.

“There’s still a lot to learn about animal groups that we think we know,” he adds. “There’s still lots of interesting things out there to find that can help us rethink their life history and biology, and that may point us in new exploratory directions.”

You’ll Be Able to Buy Some of Fiona the Hippo’s Poop to Fertilize Your Garden

Mark Dumont, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0
Mark Dumont, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Fiona the hippo has come along way since she was born two months premature at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2017. Today, Fiona is happy and healthy, weighing in at more than 1200 pounds. A hippo that size makes a lot of excrement, and now Fiona fans can purchase some of it to fertilize their gardens, WLWT5 reports.

Fiona produces about 22 pounds of poop a day; just 7 pounds shy of her birth weight. Normally the dung would be sent to a landfill, but as part of its new zero-waste initiative, the Cincinnati Zoo is composting all of its animal waste into fertilizer. Much of it will be added to the zoo's own farm and gardens, but some will also be available to purchase from the zoo's gift shops and online store. The fertilizer will be made from the dung left behind by the hundreds of animals living at the zoo, including Fiona.

The Cincinnati Zoo bills itself as the greenest zoo in the country. In addition to recycling all of its animal waste into compost, it also aims to fill its animal habitats with recycled rain water and grow more food for its animals on its own farm [PDF]. For the zero-waste part of the plan, the zoo plans to repurpose two million pounds of animal feces each year using a combination of on-site and off-site composting.

The zoo is in the process of acquiring the necessary equipment to launch its waste composting program. When the time comes, Fiona will be ready to make her sizable contributions to the project.

[h/t WLWT5]

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