The dodo is a flightless bird that lived only on the island of Mauritius. Today, the dodo is well known for being stupid and extinct. Surprisingly, very little is known about the actual bird, which became extinct very quickly. It was first documented in accounts by Dutch sailors in 1598, and the last generally accepted observation occurred in 1662. While specimens had been brought back to Europe and even kept in zoos, by the 1800s only fragments of four specimens remained.
The island of Mauritius is about 1,200 miles east of Madagascar in the Indiana Ocean. It has an area of over 700 square miles, or a little less than two average counties in Indiana. The first humans to visit Mauritius were Arab sailors. The first Europeans to visit the island were the Portuguese, who arrived in 1507. Portugal showed no interest in the island, which the Dutch eventually claimed in 1598. The Dutch were the first to mention dodos in their written accounts.
In 1638, the Dutch established a small (less than 50 people) colony on Mauritius. They brought with them a variety of domesticated animals. and sugarcane. The original colony lasted twenty years. The Dutch made additional attempts to establish colonies before abandoning the island in 1710. France later claimed the island, which they later lost to the British during the Napoleonic Wars. It became an independent country in 1968.
There is a great deal of uncertainty about the dodo, since it disappeared so quickly after its discovery. It is known that dodos were easily captured, since they had no natural enemies and therefore no fear of man. Ships that stopped at Mauritius often took them aboard for food. There is considerable disagreement about their taste. The Dutch name for them translates into English as "disgusting bird" or "nauseous bird". Others said they tasted okay, especially the breast.
It is not clear how widespread the dodo was before humans visited Mauritius. Some theorize that it would not have become extinct if it was widespread throughout the island, especially if it existed in the more remote areas. It is believed that the introduced animals by the Dutch, especially pigs, were a much bigger factor in the extinction of the dodo than human consumption. Since it was a ground nesting bird, feral pigs often ate their eggs. Some scientists believe the dodo was gone from mainland Mauritius by 1640, and the last birds were on a small islet that was connected by land at low tide. Shipwrecked Dutch sailors scouring Mauritius for food found and ate these birds in 1662. Apparently the islet had given them protection from feral pigs.
There were reports of dodo sightings up until 1688, but the name dodo may have been applied to a different bird. Prior to the 1662 sighting on the islet, the most recent sighting had been in 1638.
It is believed that at least eleven dodos were shipped from Mauritius and arrived alive in Europe and Asia. Some were preserved by taxidermists, but none remain today. The last stuffed specimen was in England. Eventually, only parts of four dodos remained:
- The stuffed English specimen suffered significant decay and today only the head and a foot remain.
- Another foot in England
- A skull in Copenhagen
- An Upper jaw and leg bones in Prague
In the second half of the nineteenth century, bones of over 300 dodos were found in a Mauritius swamp. In 2005, parts of another 17 dodos were found in the same swamp. Scientists estimate these animals perished about 4,000 years ago when they were trying to get to water during a drought.
In 2007 a complete skeleton was found and recovered from a cave in Mauritius. It is only the second complete skeleton ever found, and it may have recoverable DNA. Previous attempts to recover dodo DNA were only partially successful. Enough was recovered to establish that the dodo belongs to the pigeon family.
In 2011, The Grant Museum in London was preparing to move into a new building. Mixed in with crocodile bones, they found half of a dodo skeleton.