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Scientific classification

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus, called Didus ineptus by Linnaeus) was a meter-high (yard-high) flightless bird of the island of Mauritius. It lived on fruit and nested on the ground.

There are no museum specimens of the dodo still extant today. However, from artists' renditions we know that the dodo had blue-grey plumage, a 23-centimetre (9-inch) blackish hooked bill with reddish point, very small useless wings, stout yellow legs, and a tuft of curly feathers high on its rear end. Dodos were very large birds, weighing about 23 kg (50 pounds).

The breast structure was insufficient to have ever supported flight and it is believed these ground-bound birds evolved to take advantage of an island ecology with no enemies. The traditional image of the dodo is of a fat, clumsy bird, but this view has been challenged by Andrew Kitchener, a biologist at the Royal Museum of Scotland (reported in National Geographic News, February 2002), who believes that the old drawings showed overfed captive specimens.

The dodo was entirely fearless of people, and this, in combination with its flightlessness, made it easy prey. The name dodo comes from the Portuguese word doudo, meaning "simpleton". (The island was first visited by the Portuguese in 1505, but the Dutch were the first permanent settlers on the island.)

There is a persistent myth that dodos were eaten as food for the long voyages between the Cape of Good Hope and Asia, but neither historical nor archeological findings corroborate this. Dodos were hardly ever eaten by the Portuguese, who found the dodos were hard to eat and very messy. Dutch records concur. The Dutch settlers called it the Walgvogel ("disgusting bird") for the unpleasant taste and texture of the meat. No dodo bones have been found in the old middens of the Dutch fort Frederik Hendrik.

However, when humans first arrived on Mauritius, they also brought with them other animals that had not existed on the island before, including pigs, rats and monkeys, who plundered the dodo nests, while humans destroyed the forests where they made their homes.

The last dodo was killed in 1681, only 80 years after their discovery, and no complete specimens are preserved, although a number of museums are home to dodo skeletons. Genetic material has been recovered from these and its analysis has confirmed that the dodo was a close relative of the pigeon species that are to be found in Africa and South Asia.

Two similar dodo-like species were reported by sailors to be living on islands near Mauritius: in 1613 the Réunion Solitaire (or White Dodo), Raphus solitarius on Réunion, and in 1691 the Rodrigues Solitaire, Pezophaps solitarius on Rodrigues. The latter became extinct during the 1760s. No evidence has ever been found to support the existence of the Réunion Solitaire, and ornithologists now believe that the bird actually seen was the Réunion Flightless Ibis Threskiornis solitarius, which is also now extinct.

Recently, scientists discovered that a species of tree on Mauritius, the Calvaria, was dying out. There were only 13 specimens left, and all of them were about 300 years old, dating from the time when the last dodo was killed. It was discovered that the dodos ate the seeds of the tree, and only by passing through the digestive tract of the dodo did the seeds become active and start to grow. After a while, it was discovered that the same effect could be accomplished by letting turkeys eat the seeds. The tree species has been saved, and it is now called dodo tree.

The bird is featured in the children's novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The character was named Dodo.

See also: Extinct birds

For the Manchu prince, see Prince Dodo.