Most know it as the icon of human-caused extinction, but what is the real history of the dodo? Why did the dodo bird go extinct? Read on to learn more.
When we say something is “dead as a dodo,” that means there’s no chance of it coming back. The dodo bird has been dead for nearly 350 years, so long that it has become a symbol of mass extinctions caused by humans. But why did the dodo bird go extinct? The answer lies less on the popular theory of overhunting and more on complex human-environment interaction.
Dodo birds were endemic only to Mauritius, a small tropical island off the coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. Though Mauritius is now a popular resort destination known for eco-tourism, it was not permanently inhabited until 1638, when Dutch settlers established a base. Before the Dutch, Mauritius was widely forested and dodos were believed to live in the forested regions by the coast. Such easy access may partly explain why the dodo bird went extinct.
Dodo Bird Basics
Because the dodo bird likely went extinct before the year 1700, its existence was thought to be a myth due to how few specimens survived. Much of what scientists know come from reconstructed skeletons and sailors’ logs.
The dodo was a very large relative of the pigeon, as much as three feet high and weighing around 40 pounds. Though depicted as fat, clumsy, and unintelligent, this may be due to early misconceptions by sailors. Dodos were believed to eat large fruit and may have fattened themselves whenever fruit was in season.
They were also described as friendly: since they had abundant food and no natural predators, they would approach humans out of curiosity without feeling threatened. This made them easy prey for sailors, who would hunt the birds between sea journeys.
Why Did the Dodo Bird Go Extinct?
Though Dutch sailors had hunted dodos since their discovery in 1598, these infrequent visits to the island posed little threat until more permanent settlement began in 1638. Once the Dutch established a base in Mauritius, it took only 24 years for the last dodo to be sighted in 1662. Statistical analysis revealed that the dodo was likely extinct by 1690. But why did the dodo bird go extinct so quickly? Though the bird made easy prey for sailors, the main causes of the dodo’s demise were more indirect:
- Logging by sailors destroyed the dodo’s coastal forest habitat.
- Invasive species brought by the sailors (dogs, cats, pigs, rats, macaques) hunted dodo chicks and eggs.
- Dodo’s food supplies vanished due to shrinking forests and competition with invasive animals.
The dodo was not alone, however: by the time the Dutch abandoned their settlement in 1710, Mauritius’ ecosystem biodiversity had plummeted with numerous endemic species extinct, including giant tortoises, parrots, owls, flying foxes, and reptiles.
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