The dodo was a sitting duck. The bird was fat and flightless, clueless and clumsy. It was a walking evolutionary error practically preordained to die out. When the Dutch colonized the dodo’s small island home at the end of the 16th century, the earthbound oddity toddled straight into the waiting arms of hungry sailors and settlers.
Less than 100 years later, it was extinct.
At least, that’s how the story usually goes. There’s just one small problem with this shopworn extinction tale: It’s almost entirely false. Over the last several years, anatomical and ecological studies have shed new light on the dodo and its history, redeeming the bird’s dismal reputation.
“The dodo’s always been considered to be a comical animal … so ludicrous that it was destined to become extinct, which is absolutely not the case,” says Julian Hume, an avian paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London. “This bird was perfectly adapted to its environment.”
The origins of the dodo, which belongs to the pigeon family, remain something of a mystery. Approximately 8 million years ago, the small volcanic island of Mauritius formed in the Indian Ocean. Not long thereafter, scientists believe, the dodo’s ancestors arrived on the island, eventually evolving into giants and losing their ability to fly. The first published record of the bird dates to 1599, a year after the Dutch claimed Mauritius, turning the island into a port of call and, later, a settlement. Sometime during the second half of the 17th century—the exact date is unknown—the last dodo took its last breath.