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Friday, October 15, 2010

The poster child for extinction...

Mauritius is a small island off the coast of Africa, east of Madagascar.  In 1598, Dutch explorers found a large flightless bird there.  The birds were not tasty, prompting them to call them “walghvogel”, or “loathsome bird”.  Extant writings state the meat of the bird tasted bad, but early journals claim the meat was good but tough.  Apparently the local pigeons were tastier.  (Pigeons and doves were relatives of the dodo.) 

Eighty-some years later the dodos were extinct.  This was not so much due to consumption by people and the dogs and pigs they brought, but more so by the destruction of their forest habitat and the cats and rats introduced that destroyed their nests.  Because dodos had no predators before the arrival of the explorers, they likely had no real fear of them.

Judging by the bones that were left (and in 2005 a new cache of bones, determined to be of dodos killed in a flash flood, were found) the dodo was about three feet tall and weighted forty-five pounds.  Because it had stubby wings and a small breastbone this bird was flightless.  Scientists believe that the dodo may have originally been capable of flight, but flight was unnecessary on an island with no predators and readily available food.  Eventually the dodo evolved to its flightless state.

The etymology of the name “dodo” is arguable.  It has been suggested that name is onomatopoeic, however that is impossible to prove.  Yet pigeons and doves make a cooing sound, so it does makes sense.  It has also been ascribed to the Dutch word dodoor meaning “sluggard”, but may also be derivative of the Dutch word dodaars, meaning “knot arse” as it had a cluster or knot of feathers on its hind end.  Apparently dodaerse can be found in the 1602 journal of Dutch Captain Willem van Westsanen.  Others claim that the word comes from the Portuguese doido, meaning crazy or foolish.

All these names show a certain lack of respect for these birds.  Possibly from being somewhat trusting and large, they were thought to be lazy and stupid.  We currently say, “dumb as a dodo”, or “dead as a dodo”.  But humans are the dumb ones.  The demise of of the dodos was over three hundred years ago, yet we continue to destroy habitats and unthinkingly harm other species.  I wonder what other creatures were destroyed at the same time as the dodos, perhaps some insects or bugs, which seem to warrant the least consideration from us. 

Dodos are funny.  They are the arse of many jokes.  What’s not funny is the attitude we take toward them.  We will never know what they were like.  They may have proved to be like parrots, who can have the intelligence of a five-year-old.  In the meantime, we dispatch other species to join them.  I ask you, who are the dumb ones?


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