For the first time, scientists solve the big mystery about the dodo, the extinct bird that couldn’t fly. A new research detailed the life cycle of the bird, the color of its plumage, and how many times it molted.

The study performed by paleontologists of the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, showed interesting data about the species’ reproduction, how much time the bird took to reach adulthood, and the exact season it used to change its plumage each year.

The famous Dodo bird. Image Credit: Oxford University Museum of Natural History / Wikipedia
The famous dodo bird. Image Credit: Oxford University Museum of Natural History / Wikipedia

The dodo bird extinguished in the last of the 17th century, the last time it was seen was in 1662 according to some eyewitnesses. It was also mentioned in songs, paintings, and literature. According to researchers, it disappeared from the face of the earth 100 years after colonists landed on the island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. It is believed that the dodo lost the ability to fly due to the lack of predators on the island.

The dodo – which measured 3 feet of tall – was not afraid of humans, so they named using the Portuguese word for fool. Dogs, cats, monkeys, deer, and pigs also came along with conquers, and spread all over the island. As time passed, dodos started became the prey of both humans and animals.

“It’s difficult to know what was the real impact of humans if we don’t know the ecology of this bird and the ecology of the Mauritius island at this time,” said paleontologist Dr Delphine Angst of the University of Cape Town. “So that’s one step to understand the ecology of these birds and the global ecosystem of Mauritius and to say, ‘Okay, when the human arrived what exactly did they do wrong and why did these birds became extinct so quickly’.”

Researchers studied many dodo’s bones and solved mysteries of its life

A team from Cape Town University, in South Africa, examined 22 bones from 22 different dodo fossils discovered in Mauritius.

Most of the actual still-living birds shed their feathers around two or three times each year, making scientists think the dodo did the same. Now, the new study found that the extinguished bird shed its feathers once a year, but for a five month period.

The color of the dodo was something left to artistic interpretations before this study was performed. Some eye-witnesses assured the bird had gray plumage, cream-colored wings, and a yellow and black beak. However, some artists painted the animal’s body in a light-blue-grey to a grey-brown color.

One of the most preserved dodo fossils at the Oxford University Museum. Image Credit: Oxford University Museum of Natural History
One of the most preserved dodo fossils at the Oxford University Museum. Image Credit: Oxford University Museum of Natural History

“The dodo was variably described as having ‘three or four black quills’ in the place of their wings, and a tail with ‘four or five small curled plumes of a greyish color,” Dr Delphine Angst said. “It was usually believed that the descriptions are different because they were wrong. But the descriptions were not wrong. Actually they describe the dodo in different states of molting.”

Researchers made good advances, but there’s still a lot of work left to do

As most modern birds, the bones of the dodos have three layers of tissue. In comparison with studies of modern birds, scientists assured the outermost tissue is formed after the bird achieves sexual maturity. Their outer bones shelled a large cavity, found in other modern birds like penguins and pigeons. This happens because new feathers absorb the calcium found inside bones.

The study also shed lights in female dodos as their bones appeared to lack even more calcium. Researchers agreed it’s because the mother supplied it to her eggs. Both theories about the lack of calcium make paleontologists doubt which fossils are from a masculine specimens, and which are from female specimens. It was also found that the breeding season started around August.

According to paleontologists, it might be that females reached adulthood sooner than males due to possible cyclones hitting in the island between November and March. This would lead the female dodos to be safer if food was scarce.

“Our work is showing the seasons and what was actually affecting the growth of these birds because of the climate in Mauritius,” said the co-researcher on the study, Julian Hume of the Natural History Museum, London “The cyclone season, when often the island is devastated with storms – all the fruits and all the leaves are blown off the trees – is quite a harsh period for the fauna – the reptiles and the birds on Mauritius.”

Source: Scientific Reports