The dodo was a bird species that went extinct during the mid-17th century. It was originally mistaken as a close relative of several different birds, including the albatross, the vulture, and the ostrich. Scientists later determined that the dodo bird belonged to the same family as pigeons and doves (the Columbidae family).
This bird grew to around 3 feet in height and weighed between 23 and 39 pounds. Males were larger than females. It was an endemic species and could only be found on Mauritius, an island located in the Indian Ocean. Neither photograph nor complete skeleton exists of this flightless bird, however, researchers believe it was covered with grey to brown-colored feathers. Its head is believed to have been bald and it had extra plumage around its tail. The dodo bird is perhaps most recognized by the large, bulbous tip on its hooked beak.
How Did the Dodo Bird Go Extinct?
The dodo bird is often used as a symbol of the lasting damage humans can have on the environment and animal survival rates. Its iconic status as a symbol of species extinction is due to how rapidly this species went extinct after first being discovered by European explorers. In a timespan of only around 100 years, the dodo bird ceased to exist in the wild. Several theories attempt to explain exactly how the dodo bird went extinct and a number of events have been attributed to its unfortunate and rapid demise. Below are a few of the factors that contributed to the extinction of the dodo bird.
Perhaps the most commonly quoted reason for the dodo bird’s extinction is that it was hunted to extinction. At the core of this theory is the fact that this bird was largely unafraid of humans when the two first made contact. This fearlessness was the result of a lack of natural predators throughout the island of Mauritius. The dodo bird had not learned to be afraid of another species and so faced European explorers with curiosity rather than fear. This behavior, combined with its flightless status, made the dodo bird an easy target for human hunters and it quickly became a staple in the diet of European sailors. Researchers now claim that, although a valid factor, this is an oversimplification of its path to extinction.
Scientists now believe that the introduction of non-native species to the island was the biggest impact made by European sailors. These individuals brought with them a number of invasive species including: rats, cats, pigs, and dogs. As these newly introduced animals began to roam free throughout the island, they reproduced on a large scale and began to hunt local food sources. One of these food sources was the dodo bird egg, which was located on the ground and easy to find. As these eggs became an important dietary staple for invasive species, it negatively affected the ability of the dodo bird to replenish its population. Mother dodo birds laid only 1 egg at a time. Both adults and young were being killed to feed both humans and animals. The result was detrimental to the dodo bird’s ability to survive.
Not only was this bird species hunted and its eggs scavenged, but its natural habitat was also threatened. When it was first discovered, the island had little value to European sailors. It was often used as a stopover point during long journeys and was even considered cursed by some explorers due to a large number of shipwrecks in the area. Eventually, however, Mauritius became an important source of ebony wood, which was harvested by anybody who made their way ashore. During the second attempt at colonization by the Dutch, the exportation of ebony wood became the principal economic activity on the island. An attempt at converting the island into an agricultural plantation resulted in the destruction of more native plant species, which were replaced by sugarcane plants. This severe deforestation destroyed the natural habitat of the dodo bird, leaving it with little refuge from the invading predators.
Although the dodo bird managed to survive a vast array of natural disasters on the island, some of these events did take a toll on the dodo population. In 2005, researchers found evidence that a large number of dodo birds were killed during a flash flood event. This disaster, combined with the previously mentioned factors, made it even less likely that the species could survive.
Future Bird Extinctions
The dodo bird is not the only bird species that will suffer extinction due to human interference. In fact, scientists have been researching the lives and population patterns of more than 9,700 current bird species and another 129 extinct bird species to understand what the future has in store for birds. Based on their research, they are predicting that between 10% and 14% of all bird species alive today will be extinct by the year 2100. Additionally, 25% of current bird species are expected to be extinct in the wild (also known as functionally extinct) in the same time period. By the time that occurs, another 15% will be threatened by extinction as well.
Bird species make up a key component of a healthy environment by helping maintain population sizes of other plant and animal species. For example, birds consume significant numbers of insects every day, which helps maintain insect populations, preventing them from outnumbering other plant and animal species. Additionally, birds distribute seeds through the consumption of fruits and other plants, fertilize soil by producing guano, prevent the spread of disease by eating other animal carcasse and pollinate flowers and other plants by consuming nectar. In fact, some plants rely on birds for reproduction purposes. Because of their role in maintaining delicate environmental balances, bird population trends are considered important environmental indicators, which offer a window into the health of habitats around the world.
Factors like global climate change, increased habitat loss, unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, pesticide use, growing human populations, urbanization, and invasive plant and animal species continue to threaten existing bird species. These researchers predict that even if humans take combined, global action now against these threats, the world will still lose at least 700 bird species by 2100.