Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dodo (Raphus Cucullatus)

 
 
 
 

“As dead as a dodo!” No phrase is more synonymous with extinction than this one. The dodo is the animal that springs to mind when we think of extinction. Often portrayed as a stupid, bumbling giant of a bird, the dodo was actually a very interesting animal that was perfectly adapted to its island habitat. Unfortunately, its evolutionary path had never counted on humans; thus, when we discovered these birds, they didn’t last very long.  

We don’t know exactly what the dodo looked like as no complete skin specimen exists, but we do know it was a large bird, about the same size as a large turkey, with a stout build, sturdy legs, thick neck, and large head. Fully grown specimens were probably around 25 kg in weight and as tall as 1 m. The dodo’s most characteristic feature was its very large beak (up to 23 cm long), complete with bulbous, hooked tip. The wings were stubby and eff  ectively useless as the dodo evolved on an island where there were no predators, and therefore flight was an expensive waste of energy; instead, it ambled about on the forest floor of its Mauritian home. The only information we have on what the dodo ate is from the accounts of seafaring people who stopped off   on the island of Mauritius and saw the bird going about its everyday business. The favored food of the dodo was probably the seeds of the various Mauritian forest trees, but when its normal source of food became scarce in the dry season, it may have resorted to eating anything it could find. A liking for seeds ties in with other observations of the dodo’s behavior, which report that it ate stones. These stones passed into the dodo’s crop, which is like a big, muscular bag, and there they assisted in grinding the hard-shelled seeds.  

As the dodo couldn’t fly, it could only build its nest on the ground. Sailors described these nests as being a bed of grass, onto which a single egg was laid. The female incubated the egg herself and tended the youngster when it hatched. Sailors who saw the living birds said the young dodo made a call like a young goose. Apart from small pieces of information, we know very little about the behavior of the dodo. We have no idea if they lived in social groups or how the adults interacted during the breeding season. What we do know is that they were hopelessly ill adapted to deal with human disturbance.  

The dodo was first described in 1598, although Arab voyagers and Europeans had discovered Mauritius many years previously and had undoubtedly seen its unique animals. The large dodo excited hungry seafarers who had not eaten fresh meat for many months while out at sea; however, the flesh of the dodo was far from flavorsome. Even the unpleasant taste of the dodo’s tough flesh didn’t stop people from killing them for food, often in large numbers, and any birds that could not be eaten straight away were salted and stored on the ship for the rest of the voyage. Hunting the dodo was said to be a very easy exercise. It couldn’t fly or even run at any great speed, and it also had the great misfortune of being completely unafraid of humans. Dodos had never seen a human, and as a result, they had not learned to be afraid. It is said they would waddle up to a club-wielding sailor only to be dispatched with one quick swipe. In the rare situation in which they felt threatened, they would use their powerful beak to good eff  ect and deliver a painful nip.  

Hunting obviously hit the dodos hard—their size and small clutches suggests that they were long-lived, slow-breeding birds, which was not a problem in the absence of predators, but as soon as humans and their associated animals entered the equation, extinction was inevitable. Seafarers who visited Mauritius brought with them a menagerie of animals, including dogs, pigs, rats, cats, and even monkeys. These animals disturbed the nesting dodos and ate the lonesome eggs. With this combination of hunting, nest disturbance, and egg predation, the dodo was doomed. It has been suggested that flash flooding could have tipped the dodo population, already ravaged by hunting, nest disturbance, and egg predation, over the edge into extinction. Regardless of the causes, the enigmatic dodo was wiped out in a little over 100 years after it was fi  rst discovered by Europeans.

Source: Wikipedia

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