The dodo died out in the seventeenth century.
Ancestors of the flightless figurehead of extinction island-hopped.
The flightless dodo’s ungainly shape hid an island-hopping past, say researchers. DNA from the extinct bird has revealed its place in the pigeon family tree, and suggests how it came to end up on its home, and graveyard, the island of Mauritius1.
The dodo’s strange appearance led to centuries of wrangling over its ancestry. "It’s the figurehead of extinction, yet little is known about its evolution," says zoologist Alan Cooper of the University of Oxford.
These birds are descended from Asian pigeons. The common ancestor of both species began its passage across the Indian Ocean about 43 million years ago.
The proto-dodo probably used the Mascarene islands as stepping-stones, the researchers suggest. This chain of volcanic islands also began to appear about 43 million years ago, stretching south from the Asian mainland. Many of the Mascarenes have now sunk back beneath the waves.
Mauritius and Rodrigues are youthful outposts of the group: Mauritius is about 7 million years old, Rodrigues a mere 1.5 million. Cooper speculates that the solitaire and dodo reached their new homes by air, later evolving flightlessness independently. "Rodrigues is far off over some deep ocean," he says. "It’d be a lot easier to fly there."
JOHN WHITFIELD | © Nature News Service
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