Thank you for your entertaining, humorous and informative article.  As author of a musical, The Last Dodo, (2000) inspired by the cartoon, Porky in Wackyland, and a song, Pigeonhead, (1975)  complaining of how “the pigeons refuse to fly,” I am validated to learn of the discovery connecting the two birds.   The elusive lesson of the dodo is at last within my grasp.  Evolution on an island without predators makes us ill-equipped to cope with their return, even as we adhere to the adage, bigger is better.  The first things we lose are our powerful breastplates.  Then we don’t even realize what’s happening as our friends fall around us.  Their deaths merely arouse our curiosity to investigate the cause.  Yet somehow, through all this we manage to maintain an expression of lugubrious wisdom upon our collective countenance.  

SECTION: Section F; Page 4; Column 2; Science Desk 

LENGTH: 756 words 

HEADLINE: A New Look at the Long-Lost Dodo and Its Family Tree 


Lewis Carroll's Dodo of Wonderland was such a swell old bird. When Alice and an assortment of small animals had finished running an incoherent "caucus" race to dry themselves off, they surrounded the Dodo and demanded to know, "But who has won?" The Dodo pressed a finger to his forehead, gave it a "great deal of thought" and replied, in the stirring spirit of a self-esteem coach, "EVERYBODY has won, and all must have prizes." 

In real life, of course, not everybody wins, least of all the poor Dodo. A large flightless bird native to Mauritius Island, east of Madagascar, the dodo was first encountered by Europeans toward the end of the 1500's. A mere half century later, the guileless dodo was extinct, the victim of human hunters and the pigs and rats that accompanied them. And so few specimens of the bird were preserved that scientists have been arguing ever since over what sort of creature it was, what its evolutionary tale may have been and in what avian family tree it nested. Now a team of scientists, relying on DNA extracted from the preserved dodo thought to have inspired Lewis Carroll, has confirmed one longstanding school of thought about the bird's heritage. It seems that the dodo and the closely related solitaire bird -- another flightless giant native to neighboring islands in the Mascarene chain -- are nothing but overgrown, landlubbing pigeons.   

Reporting in the March 1 issue of Science, Beth A. Shapiro, Dr. Alan Cooper and their colleagues at the University of Oxford and the Natural History Museum in London discuss their comparison between genetic sequences in the dodo and the solitaire, and those of 37 other species of pigeons and doves.  

The researchers determined that the dodo and solitaire are not outlying members of the pigeon clan, but sit smack in the middle of the 310 or so species that make up the Columbiformes group. Their closest living relatives are the Nicobar pigeons of Southeast Asia, the crowned pigeons of New Guinea and the toothbilled pigeons of Samoa.   

Based on molecular discrepancies between the dodo and other pigeons, the researchers calculated that the dodo and solitaire separated from the other pigeons about 42 million years ago and then flew to the Mascarene Islands, a volcanic chain in the Indian Ocean.  

Once the birds settled, they did what island-bound species often do: they evolved to suit their habitat. With few predators to worry about, the birds lost their need to fly, and they could instead focus on becoming big: the dodo stood about three feet tall and weighed as much as a good-size turkey.   

"In an island situation, the birds that put on the most mass, and eat the most, can dominate in terms of mating and territory," Dr. Cooper said in a telephone interview. "Breast muscles needed for flying are very expensive. They're fast-twitch muscles that use a lot of energy keeping them there. So a bird that can afford to give up those muscles and use the energy to get big will be rewarded very quickly."   Without wings, the big birds had no way to escape from human hunters or the ravenous mammals they brought along. "The Portuguese sailors used them for food, because they were so easy to catch," Dr. Cooper said. "But they complained about the meat. Apparently the birds didn't taste very good."   

In fact, it has been suggested that the negative connotations of "dodo" have as much to do with the rotten flavor of the bird as with their apparent naiveté in the face of danger.   

Despite their taste, in short order many thousands of birds had been slaughtered. Dr. Cooper suggests that one reason people are fascinated by the dodo is the ecological message it bears. "It's the first time that Europeans watched something go extinct in real time," he said.   

Lewis Carroll, too, deserves credit for the dodo's fame. He drew inspiration for his character from the specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, which was brought to Europe in the 1600's for exhibition and consists of a head with skin, leg and foot. The dodo is said to be a stand-in for the author, whose real name was the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; a stutterer (and an irrepressible punster), he supposedly introduced himself as "Do-do-Dodgson."   

In John Tenniel's classic illustration, the Dodo is presented as a kind of Oxford don, with an academic's blousy sleeves from which human hands
poke forth. 

If everybody must have prizes, perhaps the Dodo's is its enduring literary fame. Even being pigeonholed can't change that. 

GRAPHIC: Photos: The dodo bird, left, which was hunted into extinction in the 17th century, is closely related to the solitaire bird, right,
another flightless giant that is native to neighboring islands in the Mascarene chain. Researchers have found these two species, in turn, to be
members of the pigeon clan. (Courtesy of Errol Fuller) 

Map of the Mascarene Islands. 

LOAD-DATE: March 12, 2002

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