Dutch sailors began using the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius as a stopover in 1598; Within 80 years, the dodo was gone. Having evolved over millions of years to take maximum advantage of its splendid isolation, its size and inability to flee from predators ushered it into extinction in an evolutionary instant.
The adaptations the dodo made for island living—flightlessness and gigantism—have made understanding its evolutionary history and classifying it based on body characteristics difficult. Over the years, the dodo has been grouped with the carnivorous raptors; ratites, which include emus and ostriches; parrots; and shorebirds. Since the mid-1800s, the dodo has been classified as part of the family that includes pigeons and doves. But there has been no hard proof.
Molecular analysis of DNA retrieved from a dodo specimen at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, England, confirms that the bird belongs firmly in the middle of the pigeon tree in evolutionary terms. Its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon, which lives in the Nicobar Islands and Southeast Asia, and it is part of a group of large island-dwelling birds that spend a great deal of time on the ground. Other modern representatives include the crowned pigeons of New Guinea and the tooth-billed pigeon of Samoa.
So why do scientists care whether a long-extinct dumb fat bird found on only one island in the whole world was related to a pigeon or an ostrich?
"Island taxa such as the dodo and solitaire often represent extreme examples of evolution—and if we want to examine how we, or the life around us, evolved then such animals are very educational," said Alan Cooper, a zoologist at the University of Oxford and one of the co-authors of the study. "By examining island birds we can investigate how evolution works—because extreme examples are often the best views of how something works."
Earlier scientists had speculated that the dodo, and its closest relative, the also-extinct solitaire, descended from migratory African pigeons that got lost and colonized the islands. The genetic evidence clearly shows that the dodo and solitaire came from southeast Asia, where all their close relatives remain.
The Oxford scientists can't tell when the dodo arrived on Mauritius, or when it became flightless. Geological evidence indicates that the island was created as a result of volcanic activity and emerged from the water about 8 million years ago. Whether the birds flew, swam or hitched a ride on floating debris like trees or clumps of seaweed, remains unknown. The DNA evidence does indicate that the dodo and the solitaire separated from a common ancestor about 25.6 million years ago. The common ancestor separated from other Southeast Asian birds around 42.6 million years ago.