Was the Myth of the “Dumb” Dodo Just Busted?


(Adapted from http://www.britannica.com)

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus), an extinct flightless bird of Mauritius, serves as one of a handful of iconic extinct species ____________________ (1) as an enduring symbol of ignorance. (Perhaps you’ve heard the phrases “dumb as a dodo” or “don’t be a dodo” tossed around in grade school?) It turns out, ____________________ (2), that the dodo, with its relatively large brain, likely possessed more intelligence than we’ve given it credit for.

The dodo was first seen by Portuguese sailors about 1507. ____________________ (3) Mauritius was probably known to Arab seafarers from the 10th century or earlier, the first efforts to settle the island (attempted by the Dutch) did not take place until the 1630s. ____________________ (4), the dodo population was probably already feeling some predation pressure from dogs, pigs, and rats that had jumped ship when the Portuguese landed. By 1681 the bird had been exterminated by settlers and nonnative animals, less than 200 years after European contact. ____________________ (5) the fate of many native plants and animals forced to contend with invasive species in their habitats, the dodo’s demise had a lot to do with bad luck (the chances of Europeans landing on the remote island) and naïveté (the dodo’s lack of experience with dogs, pigs, and humans). The notion of the naive dodo stuck, however, and ­___________________ (6) the species became synonymous with foolhardiness.

Yet, the dodo had a relatively large brain. This fact was revealed by a study, published in February 2016, of the interior of a dodo’s skull using high-resolution X-ray computed tomography (CT) scanning (a technique that allows scientists to visualize the interiors of anatomical structures). The dodo was shown to have brain-to-body proportions comparable to that of several species of pigeons. Pigeons are smart enough to be trained by people, and some have been shown to possess math abilities. Biologists have used the size of an animal’s brain as a measure (albeit a proxy measure) for intelligence. ____________________ (7), the authors of the tomography study argued that since the dodo’s endocranial space was similar in size to that of pigeons, the dodo may have had a similar level of intelligence. CT scanning ____________________ (8) revealed that the dodo’s brain possessed a large olfactory bulb relative to that of other birds—a discovery that implied that the dodo relied more on its sense of smell to find food than most other bird species (who rely heavily on vision to find prey).


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