One of the best known extinct species , the dodo (Raphus cucullatus ), a flightless bird native to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, disappeared around 1680. A member of the dove or pigeon family, and about the size of a large turkey, the dodo was a grayish white bird with a huge black-andred beak, short legs, and small wings. The dodo did not have natural enemies until humans discovered the island in the early sixteenth century.
The dodo became extinct due to hunting by European sailors who collected the birds for food and to predation of eggs and chicks by introduced dogs, cats, pigs, monkeys, and rats. The Portuguese are credited with discovering Mauritius, where they found a tropical paradise with a unique collection of strange and colorful birds unafraid of humans: parrots and parakeets , pink and blue pigeons, owls, swallows, thrushes, hawks, sparrows, crows, and dodos. Unwary of predators, the birds would walk right up to human visitors, making themselves easy prey for sailors hungry for food and sport.
The Dutch followed the Portuguese and made the island a Dutch possession in 1598 after which Mauritius became a regular stopover for ships traversing the Indian Ocean. The dodos were subjected to regular slaughter by sailors, but the species managed to breed and survive on the remote areas of the island.
When the island became a Dutch colony in 1644, the colonists engaged in a seemingly conscious attempt to eradicate the birds, despite the fact that they were not pests or obstructive to human living. But they were easy to kill. The few dodos in inaccessible areas that could not be found by the colonists were eliminated by the animals introduced by the settlers. By 1680, the last remnant survivors of the species were "as dead as a dodo."
Interestingly, while the dodo tree (Calvaria major ) was once common on Mauritius, the tree seemed to stop reproducing after the dodo disappeared, and the only remaining specimens are about 300 years old. Apparently, a symbiotic relationship existed between the birds and the plants. The fruit of this tree was an important food source for the dodo. When the bird ate the fruit, the hard casing of the seed was crushed, allowing it to germinate when expelled by the dodo.
Three other related species of giant, flightless doves were also wiped out on nearby islands. The white dodo (Victoriornis imperialis ) inhabited Reunion, 100 mi (161 km) southwest of Mauritius, and seems to have survived up to around 1770. The Reunion solitaire (Ornithoptera solitarius ) was favored by humans for eating and was hunted to extinction by about 1700. The "delightfully beautiful" Rodriguez solitaire (Pezophaps solitarius ), found on the island of Rodriguez 300 mi (483 km) east of Mauritius, was also widely hunted for food and disappeared by about 1780.
[Lewis G. Regenstein ]
do·do / ˈdōdō/ • n. (pl. -os or -oes) an extinct flightless bird (Raphus cucullatus, family Raphidae) with a stout body, stumpy wings, a large head, and a heavy hooked bill. It was found on Mauritius until the end of the 17th century. ∎ inf. an old-fashioned and ineffective person or thing.