A plump, slow-moving, giant of a bird, with an incredible crooked beak and fluffy grey feathers. It is no wonder that the dodo is fascinating to so many people, it sounds almost mythical and it has been extinct for several hundred years. However, the creature so famous for its extinction was only found natively in Mauritius, and with this, the Mauritians have a long and proud history of an interesting, unusual and ultimately overfriendly bird.

In the middle of the Indian Ocean…..

..you will find the beautiful island nation of Mauritius, and it is probably because of its situation that the country remained uninhabited for thousands of years. This meant that many species of animals here developed in isolation, and this included the famous dodo. This bird was endemic to the island of Mauritius, and it is believed to have become extinct by the 1700s, a surprisingly short time when you consider that the country was not settled by Europeans until 1488. This was when the Portuguese became the first recorded sailors in the Indian Ocean and started to use Mauritius as a stopping point on the spice routes. Unfortunately for this bird, the Dodo made for a delicious source of fresh meat at the port, and because of this huge numbers were killed for food and numbers started to decline. When the Dutch settled Mauritius in 1634 they brought with them pigs, monkeys and other mammals, and this increase in potential predators led to the decimation of the dodo population. Not only were fully grown birds hunted for food, but the eggs were laid in ground nests where they were easily found and eaten by predators.

It is believed that a type of pigeon settled in Mauritius over four million years ago and the dodo is a descent of this species. The closest genetic relative to the dodo is also extinct and was the Rodrigues solitare, they are both in the subfamily Raphinae, which is in the family of pigeons and doves. The closest living relative to the dodo is the Nicobar pigeon, however, the dodo really was quite an unusual specimen. It stood around a metre in height and weighed somewhere in the region of 20kg. It is thought that they had grey plumage with a white tail, and had soft feathers. As you may have seen from pictures, the most distinctive feature of this bird was its large hooked beak.

The Dodo Mauritius

This slow, stumpy animal had short wings that made it impossible to fly, which was perfect for its evolution on an uninhabited island where predators were in short supply. However, when Mauritius became settled this made the dodo a perfect meal. In fact, the rumours of how delicious the dodo tasted probably did not help its decline, and this was not aided by the nature of the bird. The fact that until the country was settled the dodo had no predators had made the creature very trusting and docile in nature. This made it very easy to hunt and kill and the natural inclination to trust was also a marker of its downfall, and although it is thought that the dodo was extinct by the 18th century, it was not officially counted as extinct until the 19th century.

Due to its endemic nature, the dodo has become a symbol of Mauritius and an important part of Mauritian culture. Many museums around the world house dodo skeletons that have helped us to understand the dodo and how it would have looked. However, until the discovery of these types of remains many scientists believed the dodo could have been mythical, as its description seemed so unusual. During and since the 19th century the dodo has become one of the most famous animals to enter extinction, and is now an archetype for anything that has passed away through the use of the common phrase ‘as dead as a dodo.’ This continuing fascination may, in part, be because of the 19th century fashion for the bird and the enduring popularity of children’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, who used the dodo as a cypher for his own self in the novel. An important and integral part of the story that has helped the enduring interest and myth of the dodo.