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The mismeasure of the dodo

February 16, 2011

Painting by the Mughal artist Ustad Mansur from c 1625.

Brian Switek wrote an essay on the dodo last week on his blog Laelaps over at Wired Science. He looks at depictions of the dodo, traces the reasons why we think it looks the way we think it looks, describes what 17th century scientists thought it looked like, and what current dodo researchers have found. I’ll quote a little here, but really, I recommend just going and reading the thing.

I hate to say it, but the dodo looked as if it deserved extinction. What other fate could there have been for such a foolish-looking ground pigeon? A grotesque, tubby creature with huge nostrils and a ridiculous little poof of tail feathers, Raphus cucullatus had the air of a bird that stood still with a blank stare as the scythe of extinction lopped off its head.

But the dodo I have always known is not a true reflection of the bird. Notes, skeletal scraps, a disregard for soft-tissue anatomy, and a bit of artistic license created this symbol of extinction. The dodo looked so stupid because we made it so.

The dodo went extinct in recent human history, and it went extinct because of humans. Switek says, “The Age of Exploration both discovered and wiped out the dodo,” which pretty much sums it up for the dodo and for species–especially species on islands–all over the newly-explored world. The poor maligned dodo had a reputation not only as being dumb-looking, but as being just plain dumb. (This it also shared with other species on islands. For example, Darwin generously described the marine iguanas on the Galapagos as “disgusting clumsy Lizards,” and found them quite approachable). The dodo wasn’t dumb; it just hadn’t evolved alongside humans. And so when humans did come along, it wasn’t equipped to survive their hunger or their hobbies.

The dodo’s not like the Baiji, the Chinese river dolphin which the world basically watched disappear, or the Thylacine, which you can actually watch on YouTube. On the other hand, it didn’t evolve into a now-extant species, or succumb to ancient climate change or a meteor. And for that reason it feels stingingly recent, an extinction as much on our shoulders as the extinction of the Xerces blue.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. WORLD BIRDWATCHING permalink
    February 18, 2011 1:19 am

    Interesting article about dodo and evolution.

  2. February 24, 2011 3:45 am

    You can say that the ‘modern’ era of extinctions begins with the Dodo – certainly its demise was the first to penetrate the wider public consciousness, and as a symbol it has achieved a strange sort of immortality, putting it on a par with such other lost species as the Woolly Mammoth and T-Rex. Simply because of this, I knew when I first started to write a fiction project based on historical extinctions, that the Dodo would have to be my starting point.

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