Why I believe research on the dodo could help save other species from extinction

March 26, 1999

Alan Cooper, Evolutionary biologist University of Oxford

Everyone has heard of the dodo - it is fantastically shaped, it looks incredible, it turns up in Alice in Wonderland, it is synonymous with extinction.

Now our biological team is planning to extract fragments of genetic material from the bones of a dodo kept in the Museum of Natural History.

I do not believe there is any way we can recreate the dodo - or any other extinct animal, for that matter - from damaged and fragmented genetic material. But studying the dodo will yield some interesting knowledge about evolution and show how the extinct bird fits into its family tree. We are pretty sure that a pigeon is the dodo's nearest relative, although we cannot be sure until we compare the DNA of both birds.

The bizarrely shaped dodo is an extreme example of morphological evolution. It died out on Mauritius in the late 1660s when humans introduced rats and dogs to the island.

By identifying the dodo's closest living relative, we will be able to trace how it changed from its flighted form. And how it has changed will reflect natural selection on Mauritius itself.

A big fluffy animal is seen as a more interesting and significant subject for study than an insect in the Amazon. At a time when animal extinction is becoming a pressing problem across the globe because of overpopulation and pollution, this research will, I hope, remind people that we are losing amazing animals at a depressingly alarming rate. Learning about what happened in the past could help us to save other species from the same fate.

* Interview by Helen Hague

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