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Dodo Birds Weren't as Dumb as You Think, Study Finds

Feb 24, 2016 12:21 PM EST
Dodo Bird
Dodo birds may have been smarter than we give them credit for.

(Photo : AMNH/C. Chesek)

Despite their centuries-long reputation of being stupid, dodo birds were actually fairly smart. In fact, a new study from the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) suggests these extinct, flightless birds were likely as smart as modern pigeons, and had a better sense of smell. 

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was native to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The large birds were last seen in 1662. The birds were thought to be stupid because they were initially very comfortable around early Dutch explorers landing on the island, making themselves easy prey.

"Because of that behavior and invasive species that were introduced to the island, they disappeared in less than 100 years after humans arrived," lead author Eugenia Gold said in the museum's release. "Today, they are almost exclusively known for becoming extinct, and I think that's why we've given them this reputation of being dumb."

For their study, Gold and a team of researchers examined a well-preserved dodo bird skull. Their analysis revealed the animal's brain was about the same size as a pigeon's. In addition, the team found an uncharacteristically enlarged olfactory bulb, which is responsible for sense of smell.

"It's not impressively large or impressively small -- it's exactly the size you would predict it to be for its body size," Gold added. "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."

Pigeons -- the dodo's closest living relative -- are regarded as moderately intellectual animals based on their ability to be trained. 

While the birds have spent a lot of time in the limelight, most aspects of the dodo's biology are still unknown to science. This, researchers say, is in part due to the fact that dodo fossils are extremely rare. The dodo brain examined in the study was from the Natural History Museum, London. 

Generally, birds rely on sight, rather than their sense of smell to navigate the world. Therefore, birds tend to have larger optic lobes than olfactory bulbs. As a ground-dwelling bird, however, Gold suggests dodos relied on smell to find food, which likely included fruit, small land vertebrates, and marine animals like shellfish.

"It is really amazing what new technologies can bring to old museum specimens," co-author Mark Norell, Macaulay Curator of Paleontology and Chair of the Division of Paleontology at the AMNH, said in a news release. "This really underscores the need for the maintenance and growth of natural history collections, because who knows what's next."

Their findings were recently published in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society

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