Non-FictionSpring/Summer 2023

Kelsey Barnett-Fischels — A Discovery in Wtuoo

                     “In that case,” said the Dodo solemnly, rising to its feet, “I move 
                that the meeting adjourn, for the immediate adoption of more energetic 
                      “Speak English!” said the Eaglet. “I don’t know the meaning of half 
                those long words, and, what’s more, I don’t believe you do either!” 
                And the Eaglet bent down its head to hide a smile: some of the other 
                birds tittered audibly.
                                          ——Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll


When the veins of iron ore disappear from our rocks and our trees stand too thin, we look across the calm waters for more resources. We have a community to build on this island, and word has it that an airport sits to the south, offering passage to islands with unspoiled riches up for grabs—for a small fee of 2000 bells.

I gather my tools: a shovel, net, fishing rod, ax, wet suit. The flight outpost hugs the coast, and I walk across a carpet of grass and weave between identical cherry trees. I reach the beach in mere moments, my feet a blur of pitter-patters.

The airport stands out against a picture-perfect blue sky, and I enter it to find the most intriguing specimen. A plump and cheery dodo clad in a pilot’s shirt stands behind the counter, his face yellow and his plumage blue. His name is Orville, and he greets me: “Hey hey hey! Welcome to your one and only gateway to the skies, the Wtuoo airport.”

I merely stand and gawk, clicking my A button rapidly to speed through his loquacious interaction. I have entered Nintendo Switch’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a life simulation game where players build a thriving island village, but I did not expect to come across this animal. I have never seen a dodo like this before. Aren’t dodos meant to be stupid? I hate to think it, but I do. Orville efficiently passes me along to another dodo, Wilbur, who takes me where no dodo has gone before—into the air.

We land on an uncharted island. Wilbur looks at me through his aviator sunglasses and shares a warning, I fear maybe even a threat: “Think that’s everything. Go explore. If you get into trouble, ask yourself, ‘What would dodos do?’”

“I don’t know,” I nearly blurt aloud to these cheery pixels. The dodo has survived as an icon of extinction for the past 300 years, living in popular culture references galore. Unlike the dodos of Animal Crossing, though, they are often a creature of little intelligence and survivability. I look at this fake dodo and realize I know nothing of its real ancestors—not even the tale of its doom.

The dodo’s story is often briefly remembered and greatly misunderstood. There’s decent reason too: For the longest time, there was so little of the dodo left to learn from. But recent advancements in science have allowed researchers to glean deeper insights with these little fragments. And these studies are helping to reshape and rewrite how this creature can live in human imaginations—and what warnings or lessons it can impart.

◊ ◊ ◊

Admiral Jacob van Neck led eight ships. It was 1598, and his Dutch fleet skimmed the waters en route to the East Indies to join the spice trade. The first three months sailed smoothly. Then a monster of a storm hit. Supplies dwindled. Ships dispersed in search of land to anchor at and replenish. Five of the vessels landed on an uninhabited island 800 miles east of Madagascar.

The freshwater streams and waterfalls quenched the sailors’ salted tongues. The giant tortoises filled their boats with feasts for the return journey. The strange flightless endemic bird—well that tasted a bit lackluster. Dutch sailors didn’t eat the dodo to death. Yet disappear it did. Who was to blame then? Few detailed accounts have survived from these sailors, so modern researchers have been looking for clues in the landscape to better answer this question.

Mauritius is a volcanic island anchored in the southeastern Indian Ocean. Its highlands hide a gaping caldera where 10 million years ago the earth violently spewed magma and rock to eventually create the calm setting for the dodo to live. The hills slope gently toward the coast. Groundwater crawls along a system of springs. And one such spring leads to the Mare Aux Songes, a marsh where researchers have been harvesting fossils on and off since its discovery in 1865. It wasn’t until recently that more could be gleaned from these fossils, though.

Dr. Kenneth Rijsdijk, a Dutch geologist from the University of Amsterdam who sports gray hair and a toothy smile, ventured to Mauritius in 2005. He wanted to better examine whether past extreme climate events strained the dodo populations enough that the arrival of people merely pushed them over the edge into extinction. Donning rubber boots to maneuver around a chocolate-brown soupy mud, Rijsdijk uncovered evidence for a clearer story of the dodo’s extinction.

“The mass grave we discovered in 2005 appears to have been created by a massive climate catastrophe that occurred 4200 years ago. Thousands of dodos died as a result of the climate catastrophe,” Dr. Rijsdijk writes of the research findings, “but the dodo as a species survived.”

That all changed after the Dutch sailors put foot to sand. The people hunted the bird directly. Yet their indirect actions harmed the dodo the most. The settlers deforested the land and spread nonnative seeds. By 1615, pigs, goats, and cows left by sailors overran the island. Rats that stowed aboard ships scurried into the underbrush. The sailors’ companion animals—cats, dogs, and monkeys—settled alongside their masters.

The dodo, without predators for millions of years, harbored little fear of these threats. Sailors wrote that they could essentially step up and grab one for the taking. The exotic creatures tore into dodo adults and, worse, feasted on their ground nest eggs. In a mere century, the dodo population cracked.

“Female dodos laid a single egg in a nest on the ground during each breeding season. These eggs were gobbled up by the rats and pigs and other species that humans brought with them. No baby dodos were born, and eventually all the adult dodos died,” evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro wrote in Life as We Made It.

The majority of human-caused extinctions are just as seemingly benign. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than 6500 non-indigenous species have taken root in the United States alone. Farms sprawl across more than 40% of the land. Roads wind through 20% more, fragmenting ecosystems into more than 600,000 slices too small to support most creatures’ habitats. These issues harm island ecosystems harder and faster than elsewhere.

“Every uninhabited island where man came, shortly afterwards animal and plant species became extinct,” Dr. Rijsdijk notes.

Blame it on the dogs, those pigs—even the monkeys and rats—by 1690, barely a human lifetime after the Dutch landed on Mauritius, the dodo was dead, dead, dead.

The concept of extinction wouldn’t advance for another century—and even after Darwin’s Origin of Species published in 1859, thinkers of the time hotly debated divine creation against evolution and extinction. Natural science collectors had barely begun curating plants and creatures, and only a few dodo remains survived. Until the mid-1800s, some questioned whether the dodo had ever been.

“The Dodo of Edwards appears to have existed only in the imagination of that artist,”  James Francis Stephens wrote in his 1819 Systematic Natural History Commenced of ornithologist George Edwards’ famous sketch of a rotund bird beside a guinea pig.

A writer and some bone fragments, though, would soon erase the doubt of existence.

◊ ◊ ◊

Footsteps echoed in-between tree-like spires of the newly built Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It was the early 1860s, and a man in his thirties, his hair slicked to his scalp and curls framing his cheeks, perused the esoteric displays of dried and stuffed specimens.

He would have been familiar with many of these creatures. Between 1855 and 1860, while just an Oxford student, he had helped photograph the specimens as they were being transferred to this museum. No accounts remain of the first time he saw the dodo, Mark Carnall, the current Collections Manager of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, writes to me, though he was known to visit the museum often.

Whether during his photography stint or in a visit thereafter, he would have seen the large bird with gray and white plumage. The creature’s plump body and caricature-like long beak were strange enough to capture attention, but the name on the placard also might have caused the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson to take a longer pause. For Dodgson suffered a mild speech hesitation, and he himself had said these words in his introductions now and again: “Do-do-Dodgson.”

The dodo stayed with Dodgson after he left the museum. Linked by name and brimming with playfulness, he wrote the dodo into a book called Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and he hid behind the nom de plume Lewis Carroll. Thus, the dodo flew out of its forever grave into human imaginations in the first of what would become many popular culture appearances.

Around this time the science community began to buzz about the dodo too. In 1840, a dodo skull materialized at the Royal Natural History Museum in Copenhagen. In 1847 the upper part of a dodo beak appeared in Prague. In 1848 the Oxford University Museum published The Dodo and Its Kindred, a formative work on the extinction of this and of other birds. In 1865, the Mare Aux Songes fossil bed was discovered in Mauritius, teeming with dodo remains. The dodo was not a unicorn, a loch ness monster—a thing of myth—scientists realized. It was real. But it was also gone in living form.

Scientists were curious to know more: its biology, its behavior, its lifecycle. Yet so little remained of the dodo, and scientific tools and processes of the time failed to extract deeper insights. Thus the dodo transformed into a caricature first sketched by Dutch sailors and distorted over the next hundreds of years in popular culture.

The dodo is a creature other animals titter at in Carroll’s 1865 Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The dodo leads a ridiculous and impossible “caucus race” to dry off from Alice’s tears in Walt Disney’s 1951 Alice in Wonderland. Dodos fight a child for a melon and follow the fruit to their deaths as it tumbles over the side of a barren cliff in the 2002 movie Ice Age.

We keep repeating: The dodo is dumb. The dodo deserved to die. The dodo died because of its own shortcomings. We ignore any other possibilities for this species going extinct.

“It has a stupid and voracious physiognomy,” Samuel Ward wrote in his 1798 book A Modern System of Natural History.

“I hate to say it, but the dodo looked as if it deserved extinction,” Brian Switek reiterated in a 2011 Wired article. “What other fate could there have been for such a foolish-looking ground pigeon?”

We repeat these claims—until scientists give us reason to say otherwise.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maria Eugenia Leone Gold opened the CT scan files and smiled. It was 2014, 327 years since a Dutch mariner had last spotted a dodo on Mauritius. Yet Dr. Gold, then a graduate student at the Richard Gilder Graduate School in the American Museum of Natural History, sat at her desk staring, more or less, at a dodo brain. And what she found sent her on a side quest away from her original dissertation into an exploration of dodo behavior.

Gold, now a professor of biology at Suffolk University and a self-proclaimed dinosaur nerd, had been looking into how brain shapes have changed between flying and flightless birds. With digital scans that allowed her to see the shapes and sizes of the various bird brains, she had planned to work backward toward the initial evolution of flight in dinosaurs.

The dodo was an obvious flightless bird to make the list. The potential problem, as has been true since its extinction, was finding a specimen to study. Fortunately the Natural History Museum of London had a complete dodo braincase on display, and the curators agreed to remove it temporarily. Then they used a CT scanner to replicate the dodo’s braincase into high-quality digital images.

“These questions about brain shape would have never been able to be answered one hundred years ago because we didn’t have the technology to not destroy the sample as we’re looking at it,” Gold tells me on a video call, her brown eyes alit with awe as she recalls the experience of being one of the first to “see” a dodo brain. Though just a digital scan of a well-preserved dodo braincase, Gold could use this to make a number of strong assumptions about dodo behavior and intelligence.

In birds, scientists have found that cranial size relates closely to brain volume. So in the case of the dodo, where no brain exists any longer (not a dumb joke but the reality of hundreds of years of decomposition), scientists can still determine brain size with good certainty by studying the cavity that would have protected it.

Gold scanned eight of the dodo’s close pigeon-family relatives. After comparing, she found that the ratio of brain size to body mass was similar between the dodo and its relatives.

“I was living in New York at the time,” Gold recalls. “Amongst other things New York is famous for, they have quite a large population of pigeons, and the modern classic pigeon is so abundant and also present in my analysis that it was really funny to see this nice correlation of brain size and body size and how the dodo just falls exactly where they should be.”

The dodo was likely as smart as a bird who can be trained to deliver messages, recognize itself in the mirror, and even multitask. Gold’s dodo-redeeming research doesn’t stand alone either.

In 2002 evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro extracted and analyzed dodo DNA to build out its pigeon lineage and long evolution on this earth. In 2008, Dutch geologist Kenneth Rijsdijk and team confirmed that humans, not past climate stressors, were guilty of the dodo’s extinction. In 2017, a collaborative research team from the Natural History Museum of London and the University of Cape Town analyzed different layers and tissue types of 22 dodo bones to build a clearer picture of a year in a dodo’s life.

In the past two decades researchers have used advanced tools and techniques to uncover a more-solid picture of a creature lost to extinction and remembered mostly through caricature. The dodo finds its brain. The dodo gains back its environment and behaviors. The dodo has a lifecycle and details that make it all the more real, all the more sympathetic—all the more capable of sending a message from its grave as countless creatures threatened to “go the way of the dodo” stand around us.

◊ ◊ ◊

The timer on the microwave flashes down from 30 minutes. That’s how long my 6-year-old son, Calvin, can spend on our island he named Wtuoo in Animal Crossing: New Horizons.

His brown eyes widen, glued to the screen, as he cuts down all the trees around his house, dives for sea creatures in the ocean with abandon, spends too many of his precious Wtuoo minutes in the shop perusing all the things to buy.

I worry Animal Crossing is teaching Calvin to exploit and over-consume. I worry it’s too spot-on to our current environmentally harmful economic system that’s led us into an era of climate catastrophe and what many have deemed the sixth extinction. But I also hope Calvin finds something more in the creature encounters—that while he likely won’t come into direct contact with a barred knife-jaw fish or a man-faced stink bug anytime soon, he’ll connect with these digital critters in there enough to care about the real creatures out here.

And then there are the dodos. New Horizons has given the dodo a new life, a face-lift that embraces its smarts. Calvin’s avatar jogs to the airport. I watch as he approaches Orville.

“Do you know what that is?” I interrupt his game.

“A bird.” Calvin doesn’t take his eyes off the screen.

“Yeah, a dodo bird. Do you know what a dodo is?”

A pause. Then, “An extinct bird.”

“And what does that mean, extinct? How does that happen?”

He thinks but has no answer. I hesitate about what I should tell him, about what answer I even have to such questions. The World Wildlife Fund’s just-released report shows wildlife populations have plummeted by 69% since 1970. The latest Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) report estimates up to a million species face extinction in the coming decades. Death alone is hard to comprehend. Complete species annihilation borders existential crisis. And although we humans often think otherwise, we too are not safe from this threat—and we too are part of these dying ecosystems, dependent on them in ways we may not comprehend yet.

Calvin’s character soon stands before Wilbur on an untouched island. Wilbur spouts the same dialogue as always: “Think that’s everything. Go explore. If you get into trouble, ask yourself, ‘What would dodos do?’”

“Die” is a rather ignorant response. Dodos’ evolution and endemic island lives never prepared them to survive the arrival of humans or the changes we brought with us. They didn’t have the tools or the technology to adapt in decades. They didn’t have a high level of strategic intelligence.

But we do. We have the tools, the technology. We have the intelligent awareness and power left to fight for our ecosystems. And the fate of up to a million species’ existence may depend on it.

The alarm sounds. Calvin exits Animal Crossing, leaving the dodo behind with it.


Kelsey Barnett-Fischels is a freelance writer based in Huntsville, Alabama. Her work often touches on the climate and biodiversity crises. She’s currently a graduate student in the Johns Hopkins University M.A. in Science Writing program. Find her on Instagram at @kelseybarnettfischels.

The author: Debra Marquart