Dodos May Have Been Smart Say Scientists

Posted on February 24, 2016

Dodo bird

The dodo bird was wiped out by humans less than 100 years after being discovered on the island of Mauritius in the 1500s. The dodo has become a symbol of stupidity in modern culture. Being called a "dodo brain" implies that you are a very stupid person or that you did something really dumb. However, scientists say the dodo may actually have been quite intelligent.

Researchers have discovered that the dodo's brain in relation to its body was on par with that of pigeons. Pigeons are known for their ability to be easily trained which implies a moderate level of intelligence according to researchers. The dodo also had an enlarged olfactory bulb. This is an unusual characteristic trait for birds which usually concentrate their brainpower into eyesight.

Eugenia Gold, lead author of the paper and a research associate and recent graduate of the American Museum of Natural History's Richard Gilder Graduate School, says in a statement, "When the island was discovered in the late 1500s, the dodos living there had no fear of humans and they were herded onto boats and used as fresh meat for sailors. Because of that behavior and invasive species that were introduced to the island, they disappeared in less than 100 years after humans arrived. Today, they are almost exclusively known for becoming extinct, and I think that's why we've given them this reputation of being dumb."

Dodo specimens are rare but Gold racked down a well-preserved skull from the collections of the Natural History Museum, London. The skull was imaged with high-resolution computed tomography (CT) scanning. She also CT-scanned the skulls of seven different species of pigeons. The endocast of another extinct island-dwelling bird - the dodo's closest relative, Rodrigues solitaire - was also examined.

Gold says, "It's not impressively large or impressively small -- it's exactly the size you would predict it to be for its body size. So if you take brain size as a proxy for intelligence, dodos probably had a similar intelligence level to pigeons. Of course, there's more to intelligence than just overall brain size, but this gives us a basic measure."

Rodrigues solitaire was also driven to extinction by humans. It also had large and differentiated olfactory bulbs. The researchers think the ground dwelling dodos and solitaires both used their strong sense of smell to find food like fruit, small land vertebrates and marine animals like shellfish.

The research paper on the study can be found here in the journal, Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

Photo: AMNH/C. Chesek