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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.

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Ted Cranford
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science
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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