In 1505, Portuguese sailors stepped onto the island of Mauritius. They had rounded the Cape of Good Hope and South Africa only a few weeks earlier, passing through the querulous south Atlantic. However, the Indies were still a far distance away and the entire Indian Ocean lay between the sailors and their destination. This little island, far off the coast of Madagascar, was for them a simple windfall of rest and supplies.
For the island’s inhabitants however, which included a squat homely bird, unblessed with any graces (even it’s meat was foul and unpalatable) known as the dodo, the Portuguese were the beginning of a incoming storm of environmental destruction, hunting, and extinction. This funny, ugly bird, an evolutionary dead-end and a parable of living without natural predators, would be dead within two hundred years.
But this is not quite true. There was a bird named the dodo and it did go extinct, yes. However, much of the facts we know about this bird are actually romanticized or incomplete myths. We have become so enamored with the fuddy-duddy bird of Lewis Carroll that we ignore the real bird.
So, a few facts.
Firstly, the traditional image of the dodo is somewhat skewed. Many sketches and accounts can agree on the basic concept of what a dodo looked like, but many of the details have been embellished or romanticized by the general populace. For a good example of what I am talking about consider the following picture.
The bird to the right is the popular depiction of the dodo. We can thank the illustrated Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for cementing this in the public mind. However, to the right is a more accurate reconstruction of the bird. You can see that the tail, beak, eyes, and wings are not quite so… silly.
Secondly, the dodo is often depicted as a grossly overweight and gluttonous animal. However, it has been pointed out that this may be a consequence of their natural habitat. Mauritius is a seasonal tropic island. This means that the year is divided into a very dry winter period followed by a very wet, lush summer. The birds ravenous appetite and bulk can be explained by the fact that the birds would naturally fatten themselves in preparation for the coming winter starvation, much like bears fatten themselves before hibernating. Furthermore, any birds kept in captivity would have constant access to food, leading to a tendency to overeat. Thus it is quite likely that the dodo was a much slimmer bird than we think.
Thirdly, lastly (although there are many more myths I could dispel) is the errant depiction of the dodo tree. In the 1970’s a paper was issued that claimed that the dodo tree or tambalacoque (Sideroxylon grandiflorum), native and endemic to Mauritius, was going extinct, with only 13 trees left alive. The paper claimed that this was due to the lack of the dodo bird, claiming the seeds could only germinate after being eaten by a dodo. This is a very tempting parable for our modern age: the ancient mariner’s error come again to haunt us.
However, it is quite likely that other species also distributed the seeds (although some of these species also went extinct). Furthermore, its been shown that the seeds are able to germinate without digestion, although not often. But the trees are quite long lived and able to produce many seeds at a time. And people have been able to grow new trees since the demise of the dodo. The tree is still rare, yes, but its fate is not linked directly to the bird.
The tendency to romanticize and mythologize the past is one of the more endearing and frustrating things about working with human history. Birds included.