Smart birds: Dodos weren't dodos after all

dodo
Public Domain Frederick William Frohawk (1901)

New research reveals that the quirky birds we so deftly rendered extinct had relatively large brains and an enhanced sense of smell.

Pity the dodo. It was bad enough that this irreplaceable species, Raphus cucullatus, was quickly driven to extinction in the 17th century thanks to man’s folly – the flightless birds that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean were last seen in 1662 – but the poor things have also suffered the fate of a maligned legacy.

As defined by Oxford Dictionaries: Dodo An old-fashioned and ineffective person or thing. No longer effective, valid, or interesting. Example phrase: "the campaign was as dead as a dodo."

Oxford goes on to explain the origin of the name, it comes from Portuguese doudo meaning “simpleton,” because the bird “had no fear of man and was easily killed.”

Merriam-Webster cuts straight to the chase: "a stupid or silly person."

But now researchers from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) are saying that the dodo wasn’t so stupid or silly after all. Their new study finds that the overall size of the dodo's brain relative to its body size was comparable to its closest living relatives, pigeons. And while many may poo poo the pigeon as well, their ability to be trained indicates a moderate level of intelligence.

dodoSir Thomas Herbert (1634)/Public Domain

"When the island was discovered in the late 1500s, the dodos living there had no fear of humans and they were herded onto boats and used as fresh meat for sailors," said Eugenia Gold from the AMNH and lead author of the paper. "Because of that behavior and invasive species that were introduced to the island [by humans], they disappeared in less than 100 years after humans arrived. Today, they are almost exclusively known for becoming extinct, and I think that's why we've given them this reputation of being dumb."

Talk about blaming the victim.

The researchers also discovered that the dodo had an olfactory bulb larger than the average bird's. This part of the brain, responsible for smelling, is generally not enlarged in birds as they usually focus their brainpower into seeing. The authors suggest that because dodos stayed close to the ground, they used smell to find food. They also found an unusual curvature of the dodo's semicircular canal – the organs in the ear related to balance.

dodoEdwards's Dodo by Roelant Savery (1626)/Public Domain

Even though the birds have become an example of oddity, obsolescence, stupidity, and extinction, and have had their cultural moments in everything from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to Ice Age, most aspects of the dodo's biology are still unknown, notes AMNH. Dodo specimens are almost as rare as the bird itself, given that the species went extinct during the earliest stages of natural history collecting.

dodoJohn Tenniel (1865)/Public Domain

But back in the dusty archives of the Natural History Museum, London (confession: they’re likely not dusty, but a Victorian-minded girl can dream), there was a well-preserved skull, which Gold used to capture images with high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scanning. Back at the AMNH, she CT-scanned the skulls of seven species of pigeons -- ranging from the common city pigeon, Columba livia, to their more exotic cousins.

When measuring all of the birds' brains relative to their body sizes, the team found that the dodo was "right on the line" – comparable to the other birds’ brains, and these other birds aren’t considered stupid. The dodo’s brain was not impressively small, certainly not small enough to carry the everlasting burden as poster child for dummies.

dodoRoelant Savery (1626)/Public Domain

So what's the moral of the story? Humans can be jerks and we assigned stupidity to an animal that trusted people simply because it evolved on an island without predators. And then we killed them all. The next time I'm tempted to call someone a dodo, I'll remember that I'm actually referencing a relatively intelligent creature that may have had a natural lack of fear, but not a lack of smarts. Long live the dodo!

Tags: Birds | Endangered Species

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