Digging the Dodo

Gret-Dodo-Aug-17-BlogThere are more extinct animals than there are species alive today – a lot more. 99% of all species that have ever existed on Earth are no more. Mass extinctions are thankfully very rare. Over the course of the planet’s 4 billion year history, there have been just six – the most famous one wiping out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Not many people know, but we are currently going through the sixth mass extinction. It started 10,000 years ago and is caused by us humans. After the last ice age, animals that couldn’t adapt to live alongside us were wiped out, mostly by our hunting them or us clearing their habitat. One of the most recent victims was the dodo which died out 350 years ago, just 100 years after we found it.

It’s hard to study extinct animals so we know very little about the dodo. But a recent study has been done into the life of this unfortunate bird. Hundreds of dodo bones have sat gathering dust in museums for centuries. Researchers at South Africa’s Cape Town University have gained access to 22 of these bones and found out a bit more about the dodo.

You may think there’s not much that bones can tell you but you’d be surprised. Dodo eggs hatched in August and, from studying growth patterns in the bones, scientists discovered that the youngsters reached adult size in just a few months – no mean feat when you consider that dodos were a metre tall! Rapid growth was important as powerful cyclones are an annual feature on Mauritius, the animals’ home. Small birds would be tossed about by the strong winds so size and strength were a must.

Brown-Dodo-Aug-17Another finding was that dodos, though the size of adults, remained sexually immature for several years. An extended childhood is a luxury few animals can afford. Most become adults very quickly so that they can reproduce and continue the species. We humans can do it because we have few, if any, natural predators. And, before humans arrived, dodos enjoyed the same advantage. After our appearance though, a long childhood became a hindrance to the dodo.

Their peaceful lives came to an abrupt end when explorers happened upon their island. Hunting was the main peril they faced but there were other problems too. You see, we took other animals with us. Dodos laid their eggs on the ground where they were easily taken by opportunists like foraging pigs and rats. With men hunting the birds and scavengers taking their eggs, the dodo’s time on Earth was up.

This study has increased our knowledge of the dodo quite a bit but if there is one thing that dodos can teach us it’s this: let’s have more respect for our fellow species and take care not to drive them to extinction – for their sake and for ours.

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