Friday, July 15, 2011
Dodos have been extinct for a long time, like since about 1690. They are very famous for being extinct, so people say things like "dead as a dodo" or "go the way of the dodo." There's a lot we don't know for sure about dodo birds, like whether they were fat, like in most of the pictures of them, or whether they were really thinner and more able to run fast.
We don't even know for sure where the name dodo came from. The Dutch people who were the first ones to describe the birds, called them walghvogels, which means "wallow birds" or "loathsome birds." They called them this because dodos weren't very yummy to eat. Later on, the name dronte was used for the birds, and this word is still used for them in some languages today. But the word dodo itself might have come from the Dutch word dodoor ("sluggard") or dodaars ("knot-arse"). The birds had a knot of feathers on their hind ends, and that is why they were called "knot-arse," which I think is a very funny word. Mom says it sounds like somebody who is anal retentive, whatever that means. But anyway, some dictionaries say that dodo comes from the old Portuguese word doudo, which means "fool" or "crazy." And this might be right, because nowadays we call people dodos if we think they are kind of dumb or silly.
Dodo birds lived in just one place, which was the island of Mauritius. And in case you don't know where this island is, I found a nice map to show you that it is in the Indian Ocean, east of the big island of Madagascar, which is off the east coast of Africa. No one is totally sure how the dodos came to be there, but scientists have done a bunch of DNA testing, and what they found out was that dodos are very distant relatives of some pigeons from Asia. So they think that some of these migrating pigeons got lost on their way to Africa, and they decided to just stay in Mauritius. Which was a very good decision at the time, because there was plenty of fruit to eat and no predators. And over time, the dodos got so they couldn't fly, because they didn't need to, and they made their nests on the ground.
The dodos were about 3.3 feet tall, and they weighed 44 pounds. When the first explorers arrived in Mauritius in the 1500s, they thought the dodos were stupid because they weren't afraid of humans. But the dodos might not have been stupid at all. I think they were probably very clever and curious, and they just didn't know they were supposed to afraid of humans. In 1606, Cornelis Matelief de Jonge wrote descriptions of Mauritius and the animals and plants there. Here's what he said about the dodo:
Blue parrots are very numerous there, as well as other birds; among which are a kind, conspicuous for their size, larger than our swans, with huge heads only half covered with skin as if clothed with a hood. These birds lack wings, in the place of which 3 or 4 blackish feathers protrude. The tail consists of a few soft incurved feathers, which are ash coloured. These we used to call ' Walghvogel,' for the reason that the longer and oftener they were cooked, the less soft and more insipid eating they became. Nevertheless their belly and breast were of a pleasant flavour and easily masticated.
When people started coming to Mauritius to live, they brought dogs, pigs, cats, rats, and macaques with them. Macaques are a type of monkey that usually lives in Asia or Africa. Anyway, all these new animals found the nests of the dodo birds, which were on the ground and easy to get to, and ate the eggs and baby birds. Meanwhile, the humans hunted the dodos, but they might not have done a whole lot of that since dodos weren't very tasty. But what the humans also did was they cut down the forests where the dodos liked to live. And after a while, the dodo went extinct.
But then guess what else happened. There is this tree in Mauritius, and it is called the Calvaria tree, and it lives for hundreds of years. And many, many years after the dodos went extinct, people started noticing that the Calvaria seeds weren't sprouting, so when the old trees died, there were no new ones to take their place. And finally people figured out that this was happening because there were no more dodos around to eat the Calvaria fruit and poop out the seeds. Because it turned out that while the seeds were inside the dodos, their hulls got partly digested, and this made it so the seeds could sprout. But then somebody figured out that turkeys could eat the Calvaria fruit and this would help the seeds sprout, just like what used to happen with the dodos. So the Calvaria trees did not go extinct, even though they almost did.
So that is the sad story of the dodos that went extinct, and also the story of the Calvaria trees that didn't. And it all goes to show that when you mess with one part of nature, you might be messing up something else that you never meant to mess up at all!