Extinct Dodo Related to Pigeons, DNA Shows

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That all ended when the Portuguese and Dutch began arriving in the 16th and 17th centuries. Having no reason to fear man, the big ground-dwelling birds were easy prey. Numerous contemporary accounts describe the birds as trusting and friendly—hardly bothering to get out of the sailors' way, never mind trying to run and hide. But that was ecological naiveté, says Quammen, not stupidity.

Although hunting certainly reduced populations, it was the animals the sailors brought with them, especially pigs, rats, and monkeys, that delivered the death blow to the species by preying upon their eggs and chicks, if not the adults.

And while the dodo was definitely a big bird, it probably wasn't nearly as fat and geeky as has been depicted. Most of what is known about what the dodo looks like is derived from paintings and caricatures from the 17th century.

Andrew Kitchener, a biologist and curator at the Royal Museum of Scotland, has shown that the dodo was probably much thinner and more lithe than has generally been depicted. Most of the sketches and paintings were copies, not based on original observations. Some may be based on birds in captivity in Europe that were unintentionally overfed, and fattened up beyond what would occur in nature.

The derogatory catch phrase "Dumb as a Dodo" has lived for more than 350 years; emerging science may slowly reshape our understanding and give the long-dead bird some respect.

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