Friday, 5 October 2007

Dead as the Dodo

For many years the expression 'dead as a dodo' has been synonymous with extinction. The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was a large, clumsy-looking, flightless bird that inhabited the island of Mauritius. Its nearest surviving relative is the common Pigeon. It had only rudimentary wings, a short tail, large, strong legs, a large head and a heavy, hooked bill. A terrestrial bird it nested on the ground and ate plants and fruits and seeds that had fallen from trees. It weighed up to 20kg and although no complete specimens still exist we have a good idea of what it was like from sketches made when it was still around. It needs to be borne in mind though that the sketches were usually from captive birds which might well have been fatter than wild ones.
The Dodo had evolved into a flightless bird because it had no enemies. The island had no mammals or other creatures that might prey upon it.

In 1505, the first humans to set foot on Mauritius - Portuguese adventurers and traders. The island was used as a port of call on the spice routes and the dodo became an important source of meat for the traders. was a welcome source of fresh meat for the sailors. Indeed, the name doudo was Portuguese for simpleton or fool since the birds just waited around to be killed. In addition to those killed for food the Dodos suffered through the predation of rats which accompanied the humans to the island. Subsequently the Dutch took over the island and used it as a penal colony. They introduced pigs and monkeys which, like the rats, impacted on the Dodos by eating their eggs. By the early 17th century the Dodo had gone from being abundant to rare. The last one was killed in 1681.
The Dodo belonged to the family Raphidae which had two genera and three species all of which becale extinct around the 17th and 18th centuries. Raphus solitaire syn Pezophaps solitarius, the Rodriguez Solitaire had a smaller head and lighter bill than the Dodo but in other respects seems to have been similar. The othwer species was the White Dodo ( Ornithaptera sp.) from the island of Reunion.
The dodo is only one of the bird species of Mauritius which was to become extinct. In the 19th century much of the island's forest was turned into tea and sugar plantations and of the 45 bird species once found on the island only 21 survive.
Only recently has one of the knock-on environmental effects of the Dodo's extinction become clear. One particular species of tree, unique to the island, was dying out and conservationists realised that the few surviving ones were all over 300 years old. It was heading for extinction. Upon investigation it was realised that no new specimens of the tree had grown since the Dodo died out. The reason seems to have been that the seeds of the tree need to pass through the gut of the Dodo before they can germinate. Fortunately it seems that the domestic Turkey can fulfill the same function and seedlings of the tree - now known as the Dodo Tree - have now been raised for planting out in the wild.

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