We can probably all agree that the dodo has had a tough time these last few centuries. After peacefully inhabiting the beautiful Mauritius they were swiftly wiped out when human visitors began frequenting the island, and have been widely regarded as comedically dumpy, foolish and ridiculous birds ever since. But this is finally changing, and it is now broadly known that dodos were taller and slimmer than their usual depictions. A new study of skulls of the extinct dodo (Raphus cucullatus) also shows that their brain size was on par with many of their closest relatives, the pigeons and doves. CT scans of a dodo specimen belonging to the Natural History Museum in London allowed researchers to create an imprint of the inside of the skull, so they could reconstruct a model of the dodo’s brain from the spaces and imprints inside it (top left). Using eight other species for comparison, Maria Gold and colleagues found that the dodo has a fairly normal-sized brain overall, with a particularly enlarged olfactory bulb. In light of work on olfaction (smell) in other birds, this indicates that the dodo might have had an exceptionally good nose – perhaps for sniffing out the fruits, nuts and small invertebrates on which it’s thought to have fed. This is quite unusual in birds, but has also been found in the nocturnal kiwi, another flightless bird. So, even if having a brain as large as a pigeon’s doesn’t sound like much (and of course relationships between brain size and intelligence remain mysterious), it’s certainly paving the way for a new and improved view of the dodo and its biology.
Image courtesy of Maria Gold et al. 2016. Read more about their work here, and read more about the dodo renaissance here.