Because the dodo went extinct less than a century after humans first arrived on its native island of Mauritius, our knowledge of the large flightless bird is limited and comes almost exclusively from drawings and descriptions by sailors who saw it in the 17th century. Dodos had no instinctual fear of humans, who eventually hunted them into extinction, so they got a reputation for being dumb—the very embodiment of a creature destined for obsolescence.
But a new study suggests that the dodo was, in reality, fairly intelligent. Though collecting natural history specimens was not a popular pastime in the age of the dodo, scientists at the American Museum of Natural History and the Natural History Museum of Denmark managed to get ahold of one of the rare preserved dodo specimens—a skull housed in the collections of London’s Natural History Museum.
After scanning the skull, lead researcher Eugenia Gold created virtual endocasts—casts of the interior cavity of the skull showing impressions left by the brain. With these 3D models, she and her team were able to compare the dodo’s brain to those of several varieties of pigeons (the dodo’s closest living relative) and an extinct island bird known as the Rodrigues solitaire (its closest dead one). As they report in an article in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society, the dodo's brain was quite normal relative to its body size, indicating the bird wasn't particularly dim-witted.
Virtual endocasts of the dodo's brain
“It’s not impressively large or impressively small—it’s exactly the size you would predict it to be for its body size,” Gold explains in an AMNH press release. “So if you take brain size as a proxy for intelligence, dodos probably had a similar intelligence level to pigeons. There’s more to intelligence than just overall brain size, but this gives us a basic measure.” But if they were anything like pigeons, dodos were probably pretty clever. Though they’re more often thought of as urban pests, pigeons are able to distinguish between live and pre-recorded videos of themselves, and have been trained to serve as spies, couriers, and even cancer spotters.
All images courtesy the American Museum of Natural History