Dodos Were Actually Not That Dumb

Vindicated at last

The dodo, the flightless island bird with a bulbous beak and portly frame, has been immortalized in popular culture since its disappearance from nature some three hundred years ago—albeit as a symbol of extinction, obsolescence, and stupidity (think the animated movie Ice Age, where, in a span of about 3 minutes, the film manages to transform the whole species into a punchline). However, new research suggests that the dodo was actually quite intelligent, bringing some vindication to the hapless bird. The findings are published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) resided on the island of Mauritius, its only home, off the southeast corner of Africa, where it roamed around likely grazing on fruits and nuts or plucking marine invertebrates from the surf. It had no natural predators on the island and was flightless. In 1507, Portuguese ships slipped into the island’s harbor, which was the beginning of the end for the odd-looking bird. Their rotund bodies proved too tasty and easy pickings for the waves of sailors that followed. A century later they were extinct.

Part of the dodo’s fame comes from its bizarre ecology and morphology—captive dodos were taken back to Europe where they were drawn and studied—yet despite the fascination, much is still unknown about the strange creature. Well preserved specimens of recently extinct species are exceedingly rare and hard to come by, mainly because when these animals went extinct, natural history collections were in their incipient stages.

Biologist Eugenia Gold of the American Museum of Natural History, lead author of the study, sought to decipher a bit more of the dodo’s lifestyle by examining its brain morphology and volume. “The dodo is such a classical symbol in popular culture, and such a rare find in collections, that we wanted to do a bit of an expanded analysis on its brain,” says Gold. Using a complete dodo skull they procured from the National History Museum in London, Gold and her partners digitally reconstructed the brain cavity of the bird with high-resolution computed tomography, otherwise known as CT scanning.

It turns out that the overall size of the dodo’s brain, relative to its body mass, is much like its closest living relatives, pigeons. Gold is quick to note, however, that “brain size is definitely not the only indicator of intelligence, but it’s a good proxy when you do not have other data on which to rely.” And before any urbanites scoff at the mention of pigeons, consider that pigeons are quite intelligent, as evidenced in their ability to be trained. “Being able to communicate effectively with an animal (in this case, in the form of training) does help us think of an animal as more intelligent,” says Gold. Does this mean that dodos would have also been smart enough to be trainable? “I think with enough patience and the right attitude, one may have been able to train one.”

So why have the birds been equated with stupidity all these years?

So why have the birds been equated with stupidity all these years? What did they do to deserve such a fate? Well, we can speculate a couple of reasons. The first, and most likely, was that, as island animals that had never encountered natural predators before, they were completely unafraid of humans. You don’t need to be told how that ended. Gold hypothesizes, “Maybe something about it being flightless led to the thought of it being too dumb to fly.”

The second, perhaps, is their goofy appearance. They had rather large, stout bodies, with googly eyes and honking big beaks, making for a rather clownish sight (Gold’s study also found that dodos had an enlarged olfactory region of the brain, indicating advanced senses of smell. This is unusual in birds, who normally put most of their stock in eyesight). Regardless of the reason, the bird has become widely known almost entirely for becoming extinct.

Then again, perhaps it was all just a way to make ourselves feel better about wiping them out.

Will this finally vindicate the much-patronized dodo? Likely not. But for all the flak it’s gotten through the centuries, the current inhabitants of Mauritius, its old homestead, have always been stalwart in their defense of the bird’s reputation. Not only is it a heraldic supporter on the nation’s coat of arms, but it’s even a mascot for Brasseries de Bourbon, the only producer of beer on neighboring island Réunion. Drink to the dodo!