The Permanence of Extinction

Ever wondered where the phrase “as dead as a Dodo” comes from?

Here is a salutary lesson in man’s callousness in driving a species to extinction, due to its extinction occurring during recorded human history, and being directly attributable to human activity.

First sighted in 1598 by Portuguese sailors; on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, the sailors discovered a previously unknown species of bird which was called the Dodo.

The Mauritius Dodo commonly known simply as ‘Dodo’ was a metre-high (three-foot), flightless bird, related to pigeons. The Dodo lived mainly on fruit and nested upon the ground.

The history of the name Dodo is unclear. It may be related to dodaars (“plump-arse”), the Dutch name of the ‘Little Grebe’. The connection may have been made because of similar feathers of the hind end or because both animals were ungainly. However, the Dutch are also known to have called the bird the walghvogel (“loathsome bird”) in reference to its less than favorable taste. Dodo or Dodaerse is recorded in Captain Willem van West-Zanen’s journal in 1602 l, but it is unclear whether he was the first one to use this name.

The Dodo was entirely fearless of humans; it had existed in a world where it had no natural predator. This, in combination with its flightlessness, made it easy prey. Having been isolated by its island location from contact with humanity, the Dodo greeted the new visitors with a child-like innocence. The sailors mistook the gentle spirit of the Dodo, and its lack of fear of the new predators, as stupidity. Hence, (the alternate belief of how the Dodo was named) they dubbed the bird “Dodo” (meaning something similar to a simpleton in the Portuguese tongue). Many Dodoes were killed, and those that survived mankind, had to face the introduction of foreign animals.

When humans first arrived on Mauritius, they also brought with them species of animals which had not existed on the island before, including dogs, pigs, cats, rats and macaque monkeys, which plundered the Dodo nests, while humans destroyed the forests where the birds made their homes. The impact these animals had on the Dodo population is considered to have been more severe than that of hunting. By the year 1681, the last Dodo had died, and the world was left worse with its passing.

Although there are scattered reports of mass killings of Dodos for provisioning of ships, despite journals which are full of reports regarding the bad taste and tough meat of the Dodo, archaeological investigations have found scant evidence of human predation on these birds.

By 1755, Cossigny reports that the number of refugees and settlers which cut down the inland forest was so high that the well-flighted Mauritius Blue Pigeon was rapidly declining all over the island. There does seem to be some controversy surrounding the extinction date of the Dodo.

Roberts & Solow (2003) state that “the extinction of the Dodo is commonly dated to the last confirmed sighting in 1662, reported by shipwrecked mariner Volkert Evertsz” (Evertszoon), although many other sources suggest the more likely date is 1681. Roberts & Solow point out that because the last sighting prior to 1662 was in 1638, the Dodo was likely to have been very rare by the 1660s with a report from 1674 is disputed.

Statistical analysis of the hunting records carried out by Julian Hume, give a new estimated extinction date of 1693, with a 95% confidence interval of 1688 to 1715. Considering more circumstantial evidence such as travellers’ reports and the lack of good reports after 1689, it is likely that the Dodo became extinct before 1700, thus, the last Dodo was said to have been killed barely more than a century after the species’ discovery.

Sadly, few took particular notice of the extinct bird, at the time of its extinction. By the early 19th century, it seemed altogether too strange that a creature was believed by many to be a myth.

Interest in the bird was rekindled with the discovery of the first batch of Dodo bones in the Mare aux Songes, as well as reports written about them by George Clarke a government schoolmaster at Mahbourg.

The same year, in which Clarke started to publish his reports, the newly-vindicated bird was featured as a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s “Adventures in Wonderland”. With the popularity of the book, the Dodo became a well-known and easily recognizable icon of extinction, and the world is much poorer for the lost of this friendly bird, and there is nothing we can do to bring it back again.

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