Who hasn’t heard of dodos — the cute, flightless birds often portrayed as slightly stupid? Characterized by their large beak and small wings, dodos were ground-dwelling birds that stood around three feet tall and could weigh as much as 40 pounds. For years they had lived on a small island in the Indian Ocean, yet suddenly they died out within less than a century of being discovered. Have you ever wondered why the dodo went extinct quickly? Read on to discover which factors contributed to the demise of the dodo bird.
When and Where Did Dodos Live?
Dodos (Raphus cucullatus) were endemic to Mauritius, which is an island in the Indian Ocean just 500 miles east of Madagascar. The island of Mauritius has an area of just 720 square miles and has various habitats — including forests, swamps, lagoons, mangroves, and rivers. Although it’s not known for certain, it is believed that dodos largely inhabited forests and ate a mixture of nuts, fruit, seeds, and roots. Additionally, they may have been able to use their large, powerful beak to break open coconuts.
Portuguese sailors first discovered these fascinating birds in the early 1500s. However, the first documented mention of them was not until 1598, when Dutch explorers spotted them. The last sighting of a dodo was in 1662 by Volkert Evertsz, a Dutch sailor who was shipwrecked on the island. Although it likely took a few more years for the dodos to die out completely, it is estimated that they were completely extinct by the 1690s.
Why Did Dodos Become Extinct?
Considering that the dodo bird went extinct less than 100 years after it was first documented poses the question of just how and why it happened so quickly. One theory is that dodos were perhaps already in decline. The fact that they only lived on one small island and nowhere else, along with a slow reproductive rate, lends weight to this theory. However, other theories maintain that they declined solely due to human influence. After all, they had survived with seemingly few issues until then.
Although it may be difficult to determine exactly, it is widely accepted that the reasons that at least contributed to the demise of the dodo are deforestation, hunting, and the threat from invasive species. Let’s take a closer look at these factors below.
Hunting is one of the major factors that is attributed to the extinction of the dodos. Until humans came along and discovered them dodos had no natural predators. In fact, the lack of natural predators is believed to be the reason that dodos evolved into flightless birds. Without having any predators, dodos didn’t need to be able to run fast or fly away. Plus, they were ground feeders, so they didn’t need to fly to find food. Therefore, they only had small wings, which they used solely for balance. As a result, they could not fly away to escape once they did come under threat.
Furthermore, as dodos hadn’t come under threat before, they had no reason to be wary of these new intruders. This meant that they did not even really know how to escape. Therefore, humans were able to catch them relatively easily. Again, as they were “easy targets,” they were more likely to be hunted.
Another reason that the dodo birds went extinct is due to the destruction of their habitat. As more explorers arrived on Mauritius, they traveled further across the island. They began to cut down and destroy the forests that these birds lived in to make paths across the island. As the island became inhabited by more and more people, the dodos were gradually pushed into a smaller and smaller area. This then led to a lack of food. In turn, this meant that dodos would need to begin competing with each other just to survive.
Also, as dodos were flightless, they built their nests on the ground. Nests were likely built in the undergrowth and were surrounded by grass, leaves, and twigs. Also, as the nests were on the ground, they were easily destroyed. Eggs were trampled (or even collected and eaten) as the explorers moved through the island. Dodos were also naturally slow to reproduce as they only laid a single egg per clutch. This meant that once that egg was destroyed, there was no chance of chicks until the female laid a new clutch.
Finally, we come to the arrival of invasive species. When the explorers arrived in Mauritius, it wasn’t just people who arrived. The sailors brought with them numerous other animals — including cats, dogs, pigs, and even rats. The introduction of these animals brought about more competition that the dodos simply could not cope with. After existing for thousands of years in relative peace, dodos suddenly faced competition for their food, as well as more new predators.
Once again, the new animals on the island added to the destruction of the dodo’s nests and eggs. Also, again dodos didn’t have the natural fear of these new species. This made it very easy for them to be preyed upon by new animals. While it is possible that dodos may have eventually learned to be afraid of these intruders, they were still doomed because their lack of usable wings meant that they could not escape.
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