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11 Things We Know About the Dodo

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Wikimedia Commons

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 monogomous.

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 palentologist 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 mummified skin (top) and the dissected skull of the Oxford Dodo. Images courtesy the Oxford University Natural History Museum via this PDF.

The dodo skeletons you see at museums have been assembled from 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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Animals
Inside Crumbs & Whiskers, the Bicoastal Cat Cafe That's Saving Kitties' Lives
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Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

It took a backpacking trip to Thailand and a bit of serendipity for Kanchan Singh to realize her life goal of saving cats while serving lattes. “I met these two guys on the road [in 2014], and we became friends,” Singh tells Mental Floss about Crumbs & Whiskers, the bicoastal cat cafe she founded in Washington, D.C. in 2015 which, in addition to selling coffee and snacks, fosters adoptable felines from shelters. “They soon noticed that I was feeding every stray dog and cat in sight," and quickly picked up on the fact that their traveling companion was crazy about all things furry and fluffy.

On Singh’s final day in Thailand, which happened to be her birthday, her friends surprised her with a celebratory trip to a cat cafe in the city of Chiang Mai. “I remember walking in there being like, ‘This is the coolest, most amazing, weirdest thing I’ve ever done,'” Singh recalls. “I just connected with it so much on a spiritual level.”

Singh informed her friends that she planned to return to the U.S., quit her corporate consulting job, and open up her own cat cafe in the nation’s capital. They thought she was joking. But three years and two storefronts later, the joke is on everyone except for Singh—and the kitties she and her team have helped to rescue.

A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
A customer pets cats while drinking coffee at the flagship Washington, D.C. location of cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers.
Washington, D.C. customers stroke a furry feline while enjoying coffee at Crumbs & Whiskers.
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Crumbs & Whiskers—which, in addition to its flagship D.C. location, also has a Los Angeles outpost—keeps a running count of the cats they've saved from risk of euthanasia and those who have been adopted. At press time, those numbers were 776 and 388, respectively, between the brand’s two locations.

Prices and services vary between establishments, but customers can typically expect to shell out anywhere from $6.50 to $35 to enjoy coffee time with cats (food and drinks are prepared off-site for health and safety reasons), activities like cat yoga sessions, or, in D.C., an entire day of coworking with—you guessed it—cats. Patrons can also participate in the occasional promotion or campaign, ranging from Black Friday fundraisers for shelter kitties to writing an ex-flame's name inside a litter box around Valentine's Day (where the cats will then do their business).

Cat cafes have existed in Asia for nearly 20 years, with the world’s first known one, Cat Flower Garden, opening in Taipei, Taiwan in 1998. The trend gained traction in Japan during the mid 2000s, and quickly spread across Asia. But when Singh visited Chiang Mai, the cat cafe craze—while alive and thriving in Thailand—had not yet hit the U.S. "Why does Thailand get this, but not the U.S.?" Singh remembers thinking.

Once she arrived back home in D.C., Singh set her sights on founding the nation’s first official cat cafe, launching a successful Kickstarter campaign that helped her secure a two-story space in the city’s Georgetown neighborhood. Ultimately, though, she was beat to the punch by the Cat Town Cafe in Oakland, California, which opened to the public in 2014, followed shortly after by establishments like New York City’s Meow Parlour.

LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
LA customers at cat cafe Crumbs & Whiskers
Courtesy of Crumbs & Whiskers

Still, Crumbs & Whiskers—which officially launched in D.C. in the summer of 2015—was among the nation’s first wave of businesses (and the District's first) to offer customers the chance to enjoy feline companionship with a side of java, along with the opportunity to maybe even save a tiny life. Ultimately, the altruistic concept proved to be so successful that Singh, sensing a market for a similar storefront in Los Angeles, opened up a second location there in the fall of 2016. "I always felt like what L.A. is, culturally, just fits with the type of person that would go to a cat café," she says.

Someday, Singh hopes to bring Crumbs & Whiskers to Chicago and New York, and “for cat cafes as a concept, as an industry, to grow,” she says. “I think that it would be great for this to be the future of adoptions and animal rescues.” Until then, you can learn more about Crumbs & Whiskers (and the animals they rescue) by stopping by if you're in D.C. and LA, or by visiting their website.

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Animals
15 Examples of the Most Epic Metamorphoses from Youth to Adult
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We’re all familiar with the most dramatic metamorphosizers of the animal kingdom: butterflies. They go from a tiny egg to an awkward wiggling caterpillar to mysterious pupa to a delicate, colorful winged creature. However, there are many other animals besides butterflies that undergo dramatic transformations from youth to adult. Here are 15 of the most epic metamorphoses seen in nature.

1. LADYBUGS (COCCINELLIDAE)

What’s black, white, and red all over? Mandy ladybugs are—but only in their final stage of life. Turns out these little beetles undergo one of the most epic metamorphoses in the animal kingdom: For most species, after adult female ladybugs mate, they lay a clutch of tiny yellow eggs right in the middle an aphid colony, usually on the underside of a leaf. Eggs hatch in a week, revealing spiky black worm-like larvae that readily gobble up the aphids around them. When a larva is fully grown, it changes into a blob-like yellow pupa. Finally, the black, white and red (or sometimes yellow or orange) insect appears.

2. MAYFLY (EPHEMEROPTERA)

Mayflies, the less-elegant cousins of dragonflies and damselflies, have one of the most unique metamorphoses of all insects. Most insects’ life stages move from egg to nymph to pupa to adult, but mayflies do not have a pupa stage. Instead, it is the only type of insect to undergo a subimago stage, meaning it’s almost an adult in the sense it grows wings … but cannot fly long distances and isn’t yet sexually mature. The mayfly’s final life stage, the fully flighted and sexually mature imago or adult, is extremely short, lasting just a few hours to a few days.

3. PEACOCK SPIDER (MARATUS)

Left: Jurgen Otto, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Right: Jurgen Otto, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Peacock spiders are tiny, venomous, and beautiful (especially the colorfully rumped males) arthopods native to Australia. Male peacock spiders are so beautiful, in fact, it’s hard to believe that, like all spiders, they go through some not-so-glamorous life stages: egg, egg sac, spiderling, adult. When male peacock spiders reach sexual maturity they try to seduce less-colorful female peacock spiders by performing a showy dance.

4. NUDIBRANCH (NUDIBRANCHIA)

While adult nudibranchs are essentially colorful and ornate blobs of the sea, they don’t start out that way. In fact, after hatching, nudibranch larvae are tiny, plain-looking and have small snail-like shells. Over the course of two months they morph from this plain stage into adults, along the way getting larger and more colorful, losing their shells, and growing gills and feelers, called rhinophores.

5. CROWN OF THORNS STARFISH (ACANTHASTER PLANCI)

Another sea creature that looks completely different as an adult than a juvenile is the crown of thorns starfish. When looking at an adult, it’s easy to see where this creature gets its name: It’s completely covered with dangerous-looking sharp spikes. But after hatching, it looks like not much more than a translucent, floating blob. Over time it grows arms, and later, spikes, then fixes itself to rocks where it feeds on coral.

6. IMMORTAL JELLYFISH (TURRITOPSIS DOHRNII)

The secret to a long and prosperous life, it turns out, is to be a jellyfish. The aptly named immortal jellyfish begins life as an egg, like all other jellies. It then enters the free-swimming larva stage, then settles down into a polyp on the ocean floor, and then finally morphs into a sexually mature jellyfish. Unlike most other jellies, an immortal jellyfish is capable of reverting back into the polyp stage at any time it faces environmental stress, attacks by predators, sickness or old age—essentially being reborn as a young jelly.

7. FLATFISH (PLEURONECTIFORMES)

Think of Pablo Picasso’s most asymmetrically painted human face, stick it onto a fish, and there you have a flatfish. These fish, which include flounder and sole among other species, begin life inside tiny eggs that float up to the surface of the sea. For a few weeks, a larval flatfish swims upright and looks just like a typical baby fish. But after a few weeks its skull bones shift and one eye migrates to the opposite side of its face, forcing the now-lopsided fish to swim sideways. Eventually, when its facial features all move to one side of its face, it changes color and moves to live on the bottom of the sea, its blind side facing down.

8. EASTERN HELLBENDER (CRYPTOBRANCHUS ALLEGANIENSIS)

Left: Pete and Noe Woods, Flickr // CC BY 2.0; Right: Projosh More, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Also called the snot otter and devil dog, the eastern hellbender is a giant type of salamander not exactly known for being beautiful in its adult form. Slippery, wrinkly and the color of mud, they’re right at home at the bottom of rivers, where they can live up to 50 years. Like all salamanders, hellbenders begin as eggs. From their eggs they hatch, coming into the world small and adorable. As time passes, they grow larger and less cute.

9. CHALAZODES BUBBLE NEST FROG (RAORCHESTES CHALAZODES)

Don’t let this lime-green frog’s bright and cheery looks fool you: It lives in only one tiny area in India and is critically endangered, threatened most by an ever-shrinking habitat. These creatures were once believed to lay eggs that developed into tadpoles on pond surfaces like many other frogs. But in 2014, it was discovered that they had a different reproductive strategy: The frogs crawl into a living bamboo shoot that has a hole in it (probably created by insects or rodents) and lay their eggs there. The creatures skip the tadpole stage entirely, hatching as froglets. Because they don't have a tadpole stage, the species doesn't require water to lay its eggs.

10. MIMIC POISON DART FROG (RANITOMEYA IMITATOR)

Mattias Starkenberg, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Covered in bright hues spotted, striped, banded, and blotched with contrasting black, the poison dart frog is one of the most striking-looking of all amphibians. Yet they don’t start out that way. After hatching, young mimic poison dart frogs are looked after by their mother, who lays a clutch of unfertilized feeder eggs to provide them with some nourishment (and, at least for some species of poison frog, toxicity). Tadpoles are brown and black, growing more colorful with age until they reach their fantastic adult form.

11. KEA (NESTOR NOTABILIS)

The kea is a large, vulnerable species of parrot native to New Zealand, with green and blue feathers on its back and brown and orange feathers on its underside. While adult keas appear majestic and beautiful, they don’t start out that way. Baby keas retain an alien-like, sparse white hairdo for several months after hatching. Keas are considered a very intelligent species, observed working together and using tools.

12. LAYSAN ALBATROSS (PHOEBASTRIA IMMUTABILIS)

Laysan albatrosses are another species of bird where the babies are very little like their parents. But unlike baby keas, baby Laysan albatrosses hatch as adorable fuzzy gray blobs. As they grow older, the babies slowly grow adult feathers and lose their baby feathers. This leaves them with unique hairdos that sometimes make them look like human celebrities. Ringo Starr, anyone?

13. FLAMINGO (PHOENICOPTERUS)

Left: Getty Images // Right: iStock

Unlike keas and albatrosses, baby flamingoes look a lot like their parents, except they’re missing something: color. Flamingo chicks hatch with gray and/or white feathers, over time taking on the same pink hue as their parents, which becomes more intense over time. Why? Well, you are what you eat, and flamingoes eat shrimp and algae rich in carotenoids, the same pigments that cause shrimp to turn pink when cooked.

14. VIRGINIA OPOSSUM (DIDELPHIS VIRGINIANA)

Virginia opossums are scavengers, eating carrion and rotting vegetation, and that helps keep the environment clean. Virginia opossums are native to North America, where they’re the continent’s only living marsupials. This opossums have pouches for carrying their babies, just like kangaroos. Also like kangaroos they give birth to large numbers of navy-bean size babies, which grow inside their pouches. When they’re born, they look more like pink jellybeans than animals. Over the course of three to five months, they mature, growing fur, sharp teeth and long tails.

15. GIANT PANDA (AILUROPODA MELANOLEUCA)

Getty Images

Giant pandas are called giant pandas for a reason: They’re enormous in size, weighing up to 250 pounds. But these bamboo-munching bears don’t start out that way. When born, giant panda cubs weigh just 90 to 130 grams (about as much as a small apple). Besides being way smaller in size, baby pandas are also quite sparsely furred—and so they look very different than what they will as fuzzy black-and-white adults.

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