Dr. Universe: Is the puffin a descendent of the dodo?
-Samykutha, Chennai, India
The dodo bird isn’t with us anymore, but if you visit a city park you’ll likely see one of its very close relatives walking around. It might even be nibbling on a French fry. Dodos were a pigeon, said my friend Michael Webster.
“Puffins are a very different kind of bird compared to dodos,” he added.
My cat instincts can often make birds a tricky subject to study. Thankfully, Webster helped me out. He knows a lot about birds, as he is a professor of ornithology. He spends his time studying wrens in Australia and teaching at Cornell University and Washington State University.
“You can really think of an evolutionary tree like a family tree,” he explained. “Except the ends of the tree are populations of species instead of people.”
There are more than 300 species of pigeons, so the dodo comes from a big family tree. Puffins are seabirds. They are part of a family of about 20 marine birds called alcids, or auks, that make up a smaller family tree. At one level, scientists look at the physical parts of the birds—feathers, beaks, how it flies—to find out who might be related to whom.
“Its sort of like apes, monkeys, and humans,” he said. “We all have two arms, hair, legs, and other similarities.”
For a while, scientists observed the dodo and thought the bird might have been related to raptors, parrots, or even ostriches because they share some of the same features. But today we know the dodo is related to the pigeon. Scientists tested a piece of the bird’s tissue from one of the extinct dodos housed at the Oxford Museum of Natural History in England. Ultimately, scientists can look at a bird’s DNA to find its relatives.
So, while puffins might not be direct descendants of dodos, they could be considered cousins. They have different diets and characteristics, but they are both island-dwelling birds.
“Dodos lived on an island where they didn’t have any predators,” Webster explained. “They were flightless and walked along the island. They were not afraid.”
But in the 1800s, the first humans came to the dodos’ island home of Mauritius, just east of Madagascar on the Indian Ocean. It wasn’t long until humans started hunting them. In about 80 years, the dodos became extinct.
Puffins also live on islands, but in the northern regions of the planet and on the open sea. They have a different set of predators, including eagles and foxes. Several years ago, puffins also almost went extinct. But scientists and concerned citizens were passionate about the puffin. They work hard to make sure puffins don’t have the same fate as dodo birds.
“Puffins were on the brink of extinction, but now we have puffin populations that are protected by those who want to make sure we don’t lose them,” Webster said. It’s a conservation success story.