Dodo birds were smarter than their reputation suggests

"It is really amazing what new technologies can bring to old museum specimens," said study co-author Mark Norell.
By Brooks Hays  |  Feb. 24, 2016 at 12:46 PM
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Because dodo birds -- the extinct flightless birds of the island of Mauritius -- were unafraid of human visitors and were quickly wiped out by Dutch explorers in the 1600s, they earned a reputation for being dull. Hints the insult "dodo brain."

But new research suggests the dodo bird was about as smart as a modern pigeon. Tests have revealed pigeons to be relatively intelligent, capable of recognizing human faces and performing simple arithmetic.

Despite their frequent appearance in popular and literary culture, dodo birds haven't been extensively studied. Specimens are few.

To re-examine the species' reputation for slow-wittedness, a team of researchers used a dodo skull from the collections at the the Natural History Museum, London to build a model to simulate the bird's brain. Their analysis suggests the dodo's brain was about what would be expected for a bird of significant size.

The findings were detailed in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.

"It's not impressively large or impressively small—it's exactly the size you would predict it to be for its body size," lead study author Eugenia Gold, an anatomical sciences instructor at Stony Brook University, said in a press release. "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."

Scientists say their findings are a reminder that new technologies can offer insights into long-overlooked species.

"It is really amazing what new technologies can bring to old museum specimens," said study co-author Mark Norell, paleontology curator at the American Museum of Natural History. "This really underscores the need for the maintenance and growth of natural history collections, because who knows what's next."

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