The Dodo’s new look

by Fernando G. BaptistA,

Monica Serrano, and patricia healy

A picture of the extinct, flightless bird that has inspired artists and tall tales for centuries is slowly coming into sharper relief. Modern scientific tools and newly discovered bones, in combination with historic sightings and previously studied specimens, are giving scientists fresh insights into the mysterious bird’s anatomy and life cycle on Mauritius, where it once thrived.

PUBLISHED JULY 21, 2020

AFRICA

MAURITIUS

INDIAN

OCEAN

This head shape (dark), sketched in the 1600s, has long served as the dodo’s artistic—and inaccurate—image.

SHARPER SENSES

Brain proportions suggest that dodoes, long considered dumb, were as intelligent as pigeons. Dodo and Rodrigues solitaire brains also had large olfactory bulbs, suggesting a keen sense of smell for finding food. (Brain art at right not to scale.)

Olfactory bulb

Rodrigues solitaire

Nicobar pigeon

Thick, spongy

bone over the

forebrain posi-

tioned the dodo’s

brain differently

from most other

birds’ brains.

Skeleton find

Scans in 3D of a rare, nearly intact skeleton have shown scientists the dodo’s true bone structure and shape.

New shape

22.5 lb

Old shape

46.3 lb

Mauritius giant domed tortoise

Cylindraspis inepta

Knee

Red rail

Aphanapteryx bonasia

Ankle

Extinct species

Extinct on Mauritius

FAMILY TREE REVELATION

Nicobar pigeon

Caloenas nicobarica

Dodo

Raphus cucullatus

Rodrigues solitaire

Pezophaps solitaria

DNA studies reveal the dodo was a type of pigeon related to the extinct Rodrigues solitaire and the modern Southeast Asian Nicobar pigeon.

Common ancestor

The Rodrigues solitaire and the giant tortoise went extinct on Rodrigues island a century after the dodo did.

THROUGH THE

LOOKING GLASS

Based on early mariner accounts, sketches, and paintings of dodoes in captivity, the bird’s image took a fantastical turn. In the 1600s, portraits of comical, squat birds became the standard for future classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

1601

1602

1605

1626

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

1865

1866

2016

A year in the life

Recent discoveries help explain how the dodo­—smarter and sleeker than once thought­—had adapted to its cyclone-prone environment. Then in 1598, Europeans, rats, and pigs arrived in Mauritius and drove dodoes to extinction.

Mauritius giant flat-shelled tortoise

Cylindraspis triserrata

Broad-billed parrot

Lophopsittacus mauritianus

4

Adult height

3 ft

Giant skink Leiolopisma mauritiana

Chick

3

Egg

2

1

Nest

AUSTRAL SUMMER CYCLONE SEASON

August

September

October

November

December

January

BREEDING

GROWING QUICKLY

Females began to ovulate in August. Nests were built on the ground, per firsthand accounts; the size, shape, and number of eggs are unknown.

Chicks hatched and grew to near adult size within months, perhaps to better survive cyclone season in the summer.

RICH ECOSYSTEM

Like many of the other creatures of the era, the dodo depended on the island’s freshwater pools–often available even during droughts. It foraged for nuts, fruits, and seeds in nearby forests.

Greater flamingo

Phoenicopterus roseus

Greater flamingo

Phoenicopterus roseus

4

5

6

7

Fully feathered (gray)

Molting (dark brown)

CHANGING FEATHERS

Around February dodos began to molt, looking as disheveled as their environment during cyclone season. As conditions improved, new feathers would start to replace the old; by July the birds would have new plumage.

New

Damaged

Old, worn feathers were loosened in their follicles by the growth of new, intruding feathers that eventually pushed the old ones out.

4

5

6

7

First feathers

Adult feathers

EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: DELPHINE ANGST, UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL; LEON CLAESSENS, MAASTRICHT UNIVERSITY; M. EUGENIA L. GOLD, SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY; DURBAN NATURAL SCIENCE MUSEUM AND AVES 3D; JULIAN HUME, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON; ANDREW IWANIUK, UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE; STIG WALSH, NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND; RAFFAEL WINKLER, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BASEL; AGNÈS ANGST (MODERN DODO)

The Dodo’s new look

by Fernando G. Baptista,

Monica Serrano, and patricia healy

A picture of the extinct, flightless bird that has inspired artists and tall tales for centuries is slowly coming into sharper relief. Modern scientific tools and newly discovered bones, in combination with historic sightings and previously studied specimens, are giving scientists fresh insights into the mysterious bird’s anatomy and life cycle on Mauritius, where it once thrived.

AFRICA

MAURITIUS

INDIAN

OCEAN

PUBLISHED JULY 21, 2020

SHARPER SENSES

Olfactory bulb

Brain proportions suggest that dodoes, long considered dumb, were as intelligent as pigeons. Dodo and Rodrigues solitaire brains also had large olfactory bulbs, suggesting a keen sense of smell for finding food. (Brain art at right not to scale.)

Rodrigues solitaire

Nicobar pigeon

Skeleton find

Scans in 3D of a rare, nearly intact skeleton have shown scientists the dodo’s true bone structure and shape.

Thick, spongy

bone over the

forebrain posi-

tioned the dodo’s

brain differently

from most other

birds’ brains.

New shape

22.5 lb

Old shape

46.3 lb

Mauritius giant domed tortoise

Cylindraspis inepta

Mauritius giant domed tortoise

Cylindraspis inepta

Knee

Red rail

Aphanapteryx bonasia

Red rail

Aphanapteryx bonasia

Ankle

This head shape (dark), sketched in the 1600s, has long served as the dodo’s artistic—and inaccurate—image.

FAMILY TREE REVELATION

Nicobar pigeon

Caloenas

nicobarica

Dodo

Raphus

cucullatus

Rodrigues solitaire

Pezophaps solitaria

DNA studies reveal the dodo was a type of pigeon related to the extinct Rodrigues solitaire and the modern Southeast Asian Nicobar pigeon.

The Rodrigues solitaire and the giant tortoise went extinct on Rodrigues island a century after the dodo did.

Extinct on Mauritius

Extinct species

Common ancestor

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Based on early mariner accounts, sketches, and paintings of dodoes in captivity, the bird’s image took a fantastical turn. In the 1600s, portraits of comical, squat birds became the standard for future classics such as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

1601

1602

1605

1626

1866

2016

1865

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

A year in the life

Recent discoveries help explain how the dodo­—smarter and sleeker than once thought­—had adapted to its cyclone-prone environment. Then in 1598, Europeans, rats, and pigs arrived in Mauritius and drove dodoes to extinction.

RICH ECOSYSTEM

Like many of the other creatures of the era, the dodo depended on the island’s freshwater pools­–often available even during droughts. It foraged for nuts, fruits, and seeds in nearby forests.

RICH ECOSYSTEM

Like many of the other creatures of the era, the dodo depended on the island’s freshwater pools­–often available even during droughts. It foraged for nuts, fruits, and seeds in nearby forests.

Mauritius giant flat-shelled tortoise

Cylindraspis triserrata

Greater flamingo

Phoenicopterus roseus

Greater flamingo

Phoenicopterus roseus

Broad-billed parrot

Lophopsittacus mauritianus

4

Adult height

3ft

5

6

7

Giant skink Leiolopisma mauritiana

Fully feathered (gray)

Molting (dark brown)

Chick

3

Egg

2

1

Nest

AUSTRAL SUMMER CYCLONE SEASON

Sept.

Oct.

Nov.

Dec.

Jan.

Feb.

March

April

May

June

July

Aug.

BREEDING

GROWING QUICKLY

CHANGING FEATHERS

Females began to ovulate in August. Nests were built on the ground, per firsthand accounts; the size, shape, and number of eggs are unknown.

Chicks hatched and grew to near adult size within months, perhaps to better survive cyclone season in the summer.

Molting dodoes looked as disheveled as their environment during cyclone season. As conditions improved, new feathers began to replace the old.

Old, worn feathers were loosened in their follicles by the growth of new, intruding feathers that eventually pushed the old ones out.

New

Damaged

Early images could have been influenced by seasons or feather cycles, with birds looking darker and thinner when molting and lighter and larger when fully feathered.

4

5

6

7

First feathers

Adult feathers

EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: DELPHINE ANGST, UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL; LEON CLAESSENS, MAASTRICHT UNIVERSITY; M. EUGENIA L. GOLD,

SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY; DURBAN NATURAL SCIENCE MUSEUM AND AVES 3D; JULIAN HUME, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON; ANDREW IWANIUK, UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE;

STIG WALSH, NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND; RAFFAEL WINKLER, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BASEL; AGNÈS ANGST (MODERN DODO)

The

Dodo’s

new look

by Fernando G.BaptistA,

Monica serrano,

and patricia healy

A picture of the extinct, flightless bird that has inspired artists and tall tales for centuries is slowly coming into sharper relief. Modern scientific tools and newly discovered bones,

in combination with historic

sightings and previously studied specimens, are giving scientists fresh insights into the mysterious bird’s anatomy and life cycle on Mauritius, where it once thrived.

AFRICA

MAURITIUS

INDIAN

OCEAN

The wider head shape, sketched in the the 1600s, has long served as the dodo’s artistic—and inaccurate—image.

GROWING QUICKLY

Females began to ovulate in August. Nests

were built on the ground and chicks hatched

and grew to near adult size within months,

perhaps to better survive the summer cyclone

season. A few months later new feathers would

begin to replace old ones.

Skeleton find

Scans in 3D of a rare, nearly intact skeleton have shown scientists the dodo’s true bone structure and shape.

Small, vestigial wings were possibly used for display and to help with balance.

Old shape

46.3 lb

New shape

22.5 lb

Knee

Ankle

THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS

Based on early mariner accounts, sketches,

and paintings of dodoes in captivity, the birds

image took a fantastical turn. In the 1600s,

portraits of comical, squat birds became the

standard for future classics such as

Alices

Adventures in Wonderland.

1605

1626

1866

2016

EVE CONANT, NGM STAFF. SOURCES: DELPHINE ANGST, UNIVERSITY OF BRISTOL; LEON CLAESSENS, MAASTRICHT UNIVERSITY; M. EUGENIA L. GOLD, SUFFOLK UNIVERSITY; DURBAN NATURAL SCIENCE MUSEUM AND AVES 3D; JULIAN HUME, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, LONDON; ANDREW IWANIUK, UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE; STIG WALSH,

NATIONAL MUSEUMS SCOTLAND; RAFFAEL WINKLER, NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM BASEL; AGNÈS ANGST (MODERN DODO)