Maybe Dodos Weren't So Dumb After All

Feb 29, 2016

A dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Credit allispossible.org.uk via Flickr Creative Commons

Maybe you’ve heard the phrase “Dumb as a dodo” before. Dodos were supposed to be dumb — the story goes — that’s why the three-foot tall, flightless birds weren’t afraid of the European sailors who hunted them to extinction on the island of Mauritius in the 1600s.

With their outsized, cartoonish beaks, their tiny wings and their gangly necks stuck on a plump body, they don’t look very smart.

“As goofy as it looks, it’s actually not that bad. It may not be a genius, but it’s no dodo,” says Euginea Gold, a Stony Brook University researcher.

She took a close look at the skull of one of the few preserved dodo specimens left in the world. She says underneath their gawky exterior, dodos’ brains weren’t that small. Relative to their bodies, they were about the size of modern pigeons, their distant relatives. And, that’s a big deal. Pigeons are pretty smart themselves. They can be trained to deliver messages.

“If you’re able to train an animal to do something, it means you’re able to communicate with it efficiently,” she says.

While there’s more to intelligence than just brain size, there’s a much more logical reason for why the dodo went extinct, Gold says.

Isolated to a small island 1,200 miles off the east coast of Africa, they’d probably never seen predators like humans before.

“When people arrived on Mauritius, the dodos were so common and so fearless that it was really easy to just herd them onto boats and use them for fresh meat later on a ship’s voyage,” says Gold. “Dodos basically stood no chance.”

Gold says that should give us pause to consider the effects we have on species today, when animals like rhinos and elephants are endangered because of hunting. And she says maybe the dodo can finally get some respect.