Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Newfound Island Graveyard May Yield Clues to Dodo Life of Long Ago






By Aussiegirl

What a sweet, docile bird the dodo must have been! I recall reading somewhere that whenever it heard the distress cries of its fellow dodos, it would run over to see what the trouble was -- and meet an unfortunate end.
Wikipedia has, as usual, a detailed article on the dodo -- here are two interesting quotes, the first on its extinction: The source of the dodo's extinction is not certain, but recent evidence suggests that it was nearly wiped out by some natural disaster before humans even arrived on the island, its population reduced so severely that it fell below sustainable levels. And here we find out that it was Lewis Carroll who made the dodo a popular icon: No one took particular notice of the extinct bird until it was featured in the Caucus race in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). With the popularity of the book, the Dodo became a household word: "as dead as a Dodo". The character was named Dodo. (In the illustration the Dodo is presenting an "elegant thimble" to Alice.)
Finally, here's an article I found about the attempt to clone a dodo from some remaining soft tissue -- and in this article we find that not all museum employees are that concerned with preserving unique artifacts: No complete specimens of dodo are preserved, although a number of museums are home to dodo skeletons. A dodo egg is on display at the East London Museum in South Africa. The only known major remains of the dodo are in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Even here, in the January of 1775, an inspector from the Oxford Museum discovered the only remaining dodo, stuffed and disintegrating, and decided to throw it away. The man in charge of this task saved the head and a foot, that were in good condition, and this is all we have of the dodo bird today.

Newfound Island Graveyard May Yield Clues to Dodo Life of Long Ago - New York Times

Newfound Island Graveyard May Yield Clues to Dodo Life of Long Ago
By CARL ZIMMER

Everyone knows about the death of the dodo, but no one knows much about its life.
Scientists have relied on a few descriptions, preserved skins and the odd bone to describe the dodo, extinct for more than 300 years. Bones found recently on its home, Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, may allow scientists to reconstruct the ecological world of the dodo before humans arrived and it departed.

The stocky flightless bird became extinct at the end of the 1600's, less than two centuries after European explorers discovered its home, the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius. Beyond passing descriptions, little evidence of the bird has survived — a preserved skin here, an isolated leg bone there.

Over the last few weeks, however, a team of scientists has been exploring a trove of dodo fossils that may be as old as 3,000 years. Along with the dodos, the scientists have found fossils of other species of birds, reptiles, bats and numerous plants. [....]

The origins of the dodo are mysterious. Studies on its DNA indicate that it descended from pigeons. The dodo's closest relative was the solitaire, another extinct flightless bird that lived only on the nearby island of Rodrigues.

The dodo and the solitaire share a common ancestor that the scientists estimate lived 25 million years ago. But Mauritius formed only about eight million years ago. No one knows where the dodo's ancestors lived before then.

Once they arrived on the island, dodos followed the same evolutionary path that other birds have taken on other islands, like Madagascar and Hawaii. They became stocky and flightless as they adapted to feeding on plants. "Nature abhors a vacuum," said Dr. David A. Burney, the director of conservation at the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii and a professor at Fordham University in New York, who was not part of the dodo fossil team. "With a few million years these birds turned into the avian equivalent of pigs and goats."

Plant-eating mammals play a major role in shaping their ecosystems. Dodos may have thinned the Mauritius forests, and some plants may have come to depend on them to spread their seeds. [....]

By understanding the Mauritius ecosystem before humans arrived, they hope to find clues to the dodo's extinction. Dodos were easy to hunt, but hunting alone probably did not wipe them out. Recent research indicates that the early Dutch settlers rarely ate dodo meat. Nor did the deforestation of the island doom the dodo. Major forest clearing did not begin until after the dodo became extinct.

The mammals introduced to the island by early visitors may have been the culprits. Pigs and monkeys quickly established themselves and may have competed for food, eaten dodo eggs or somehow disrupted the environment. "A lot of the earliest changes to these little islands actually sweep ahead of the humans," Dr. Burney said. [....]
COMMENT:

Pindar said...
A very interesting post, Aussiegirl, with a beautiful illustration by the great John Tenniel. Your use of the phrase "elegant thimble" betrays your erudition. For those of your readers who haven't recently read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, the phrase occurs in chapter 3, "A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale", in which the animals, including among others a Mouse, a Duck, a Dodo, a Lory, and an Eaglet, decide to have a Caucus-race. After it's over, Alice is asked to give out the prizes, comfits that she happens to have with her. She does so, but then the Mouse says that she herself must have a prize, and all she has left in her pocket is a thimble. Here let me quote the relevant paragraph: Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying, "We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble;" and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

1 Comments:

At 10:34 AM, Anonymous Pindar said...

A very interesting post, Aussiegirl, with a beautiful illustration by the great John Tenniel. Your using the phrase "elegant thimble" betrays your erudition. For those of your readers who haven't recently read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, this is its origin. In chapter 3, "A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale", the animals decide to have a Caucus-race, and after it's over, Alice is asked to give out the prizes. She does so, but then the Mouse says that she herself must have a prize, and all she has left in her pocket is a thimble. Here let me quote the relevant paragraph: Then they all crowded round her once more, while the Dodo solemnly presented the thimble, saying, "We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble;" and, when it had finished this short speech, they all cheered.

 

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