The latest evidence points towards the dodo bird as not exactly being a duffer avian. It was in fact quite an intelligent and fine-feathered specimen.
New research proves that the dodo was not a stupid bird by any means. Rather it had a sharp sense of smell although its brain was about the size of a pigeon. Such popular memes as “daft as a dodo” don’t appear to have any reality to them.
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Pigeons, which happen to be the closest extant relatives of dodos, are intelligent enough to be taught various tasks by scientists. In fact, pigeons may even take part in espionage operations. The dodo may be extinct today, but it bore an uncanny resemblance to pigeons.
The enlarged smell organ of the dodo meant that it could detect the minutest of odors in the air. This was an oddity since most birds favor the sense of sight over smell. Dodos were birds that could not fly.
They were ungainly and unwieldy and lived on Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. These harmless birds were killed off by sailors that ventured on the beaches of Mauritius. The last one died in 1662.
"When the island was discovered in the late 1500s, the dodos living there had no fear of humans and they were herded onto boats and used as fresh meat for sailors," said Eugenia Gold, the lead author of the paper, a research associate and recent graduate of the American Museum of Natural History's Richard Gilder Graduate School, and an instructor in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook University.
"Because of that behavior and invasive species that were introduced to the island, they disappeared in less than 100 years after humans arrived. Today, they are almost exclusively known for becoming extinct, and I think that's why we've given them this reputation of being dumb."
Since the birds had hardly seen humans, when the sailors came, they herded them on board their boats and slaughtered them for their edible meat. Due to the sailors’ irresponsible behavior and other predatory species that were introduced on the island, the birds died out within a century leaving no trace behind them.
Just because they were wiped off the face of the earth does not make them a stupid or dumb species though. There is more to the story of the dodo than that. A specimen of such a bird is a rarity today. This is the main reason why research on the dodo has hardly begun.
A preserved skull of the dodo was recently put under a CAT Scan. This revealed several hitherto unknown facts about the bird. The skulls of various pigeons that were relatives of the dodo were also subjected to the same procedure. The brain and body size of each bird was also examined in detail.
"It's not impressively large or impressively small -- it's exactly the size you would predict it to be for its body size," Gold said.
"So if you take brain size as a proxy for intelligence, dodos probably had a similar intelligence level to pigeons. Of course, there's more to intelligence than just overall brain size, but this gives us a basic measure."
Intelligence after all is not just about the size of the brain. That would be a crude measurement of general intelligence. Both the dodo and its pigeon relatives had large olfactory bulbs that aided in sharply increasing their sense of smell.
Since the dodo was land-bound, it may have used its sense of smell to detect prey. It basically thrived on fruits, small animals and marine life. Thanks to the new technology we have available today, the extinct dodo’s inner life can be laid out in the open for scientists to peruse at leisure.
"It is really amazing what new technologies can bring to old museum specimens," said co-author Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator of Paleontology and Chair of the Division of Paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History.
"This really underscores the need for the maintenance and growth of natural history collections, because who knows what's next."
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This study has been published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.