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.

What's the Difference Between Pigeons and Doves?

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To the layman, the difference between pigeons and doves has something to with color, maybe. Or location. Or general appeal (doves usually get much better press than pigeons do). But what’s the actual, scientific difference between doves and pigeons?

As it turns out, there isn’t one. Paul Sweet, the collection manager for the department of ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History, says the difference is more linguistic than taxonomic.

“The word dove is a word that came into English from the more Nordic languages, whereas pigeon came into English from French,” Sweet tells Mental Floss.

Both dove and pigeon refer to the 308 species of birds from the Columbidae family, Sweet says. There’s no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature, but colloquial English tends to categorize them by size. Something called a dove is generally smaller than something called a pigeon, but that’s not always the case. A common pigeon, for example, is called both a rock dove and a rock pigeon.

“People just have their own classification for what makes them different,” Sweet says. “So in the Pacific, for example, the big ones might get called pigeons and the smaller ones might be called doves, but they’re actually more closely related to each other than they are to other things in, say, South America, that are called pigeons and doves.”

The difference boils down to linguistic traditions, so feel free to tell people you’re releasing pigeons at your wedding or that you’re feeding doves in the park. Scientifically speaking, you’ll be correct either way.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

8 Hair-Raising Facts About Black Cats

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No member of catkind is more maligned than the black cat. At best, they're bemoaned as lackluster photography subjects; at worst, they're seen as harbingers of really bad luck. But there's a lot to love about these furballs, as evidenced by the holidays in their honor—the ASPCA celebrates Black Cat Appreciation Day annually on August 17 and, across the pond, October 27 is National Black Cat Day—and the facts below.

1. IN SOME CULTURES, BLACK CATS ARE GOOD LUCK.

A black kitten stretching
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They may have a less-than-stellar reputation in some areas of the world, but there are plenty of places where black cats aren’t bad luck at all. If you’re a single woman in Japan, owning a black cat is said to increase your number of suitors; if you’re in Germany and one crosses your path from right to left, good things are on the horizon.

2. THEY'RE A SAILOR'S BEST FRIEND.

Not only were cats welcome aboard British vessels to hunt mice, but sailors generally thought a black cat in particular would bring good luck and ensure a safe return home. A few of these kitties have been enshrined in maritime history, like Tiddles, who traveled more than 30,000 miles during his time with the Royal Navy. (His favorite pastime was playing with the capstan’s bell-rope.)

3. THERE IS NO ONE BLACK CAT BREED.

The Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) recognizes 22 different breeds that can have solid black coats—including the Norwegian Forest Cat, Japanese Bobtail, and Scottish Fold—but the Bombay breed is what most people picture: a copper-eyed, all-black shorthair. The resemblance to a "black panther" (more on those animals in a bit) is no coincidence. In the 1950s, a woman named Nikki Horner was so enamored with how panthers looked that she bred what we now refer to as the Bombay.

4. BLACK CATS ARE AS EASILY ADOPTED AS CATS OF OTHER COLORS.

Black cat facts.
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It’s common to think that black cats in shelters are the last in line to find their forever homes, but a recent survey from the ASPCA suggests otherwise. Although euthanasia numbers for black cats were some of the highest, their total number of adoptions was the highest of any hue as well. The vet who conducted the study argues that there may just simply be more black cats than other colors.

5. THEIR COATS CAN "RUST."

A black cat’s color all boils down to a genetic quirk. There are three variants of the black fur gene (solid black, brown, and cinnamon), and the hue works in conjunction with the pattern. If a cat has a solid black hue, but also the dominant tabby stripe gene, heavy exposure to the sun can make the eumelanin pigment in its fur break down to reveal its once-invisible stripes (another potential cause: nutritional deficiency). What was once a black cat is now a rusty brown cat.

6. THE GENE THAT CAUSES BLACK FUR MIGHT MAKE THESE FELINES RESISTANT TO DISEASE.

Even though their coloring is what gives them a bad reputation, these felines may be getting the last laugh after all. The mutation that causes a cat’s fur to be black is in the same genetic family as genes known to give humans resistance to diseases like HIV. Some scientists think the color of these cats may have less to do with camouflage and more to do with disease resistance. They’re hoping that as more cat genomes are mapped, we may get a step closer to curing HIV.

7. YOU CAN VISIT A CAT CAFE DEVOTED TO BLACK CATS.

Step through the doors of Nekobiyaka in Himeji, Japan and get ready for your wildest cat lady dreams to come true. Black cats are the stars of this café and visitors are invited to pet (but not pick up) these lithe felines. Each of Nekobiyaka’s identical-looking black cats wears a different colored bandana to resolve any catastrophic mix-ups.

8. THEY'RE DIFFICULT TO PHOTOGRAPH—BUT IT CAN BE DONE.

A black cat is photographed against a blue-gray background
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The modern-day conundrum black cat owners face isn’t bad luck, but bad lighting. In a world filled with people sharing photos of their pets on Instagram, black cats can end up looking like a dark blob in photos. One photographer’s advice? Minimalist backgrounds, so your subject can stand out, and angling them towards natural light sources (but keep them out of bright sunlight!). If you're snapping pics on your iPhone, tap on your cat's face, then use the sun icon to brighten up the photo.

BONUS: BLACK PANTHERS HAVE SPOTS.

Technically, there is no such thing as a black panther—it’s a term used for any big black cat. What we call black panthers are in fact jaguars or leopards and yes, they have spots, too. Their hair shafts produce too much melanin thanks to a mutation in their agouti genes, which are responsible for distributing pigment in an animal’s fur. Look carefully and you can see a panther’s spots as the sunlight hits them in just the right way.

This article originally ran in 2016.

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