The dodo’s family tree has gained another member: the Zealandian dove.
Researchers have described a new species of pigeon that is in the same family as the famous dodo, in a study published in the journal Paleontología Y Evolución de las Aves. The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) was a large flightless pigeon, endemic to the island of Mauritius, east of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, and its closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica) of south-east Asia.
“We think that the Zealandian Dove is part of this Indo-Pacific group,” says lead author Vanesa De Pietri, from Canterbury Museum in Christchurch, New Zealand.
“The Zealandian dove is the first record of this group found in the southern part of the nearly submerged land mass known as Zealandia.”
Pietri’s team, drawn from the Museum of NZ Te Papa Tongarewa, and Australia’s Flinders University and the University of NSW, named the new species after Zealandia, a recently described subcontinental shelf that is mostly submerged, and broke away from the super-continent Gondwana some 60 to 85 million years ago.
The Zealandian dove (Deliaphaps zealandiensis) fossil dates from between 19 and 16 million years ago, a time when New Zealand was covered in dense subtropical forests. Pigeons and doves are fruit and seed specialists, and thrive in forests with abundant fruiting trees and shrubs.
“The disappearance of these pigeons from New Zealand’s fauna was likely linked to the marked climatic cooling that took place between 14.2 and 13.8 million years ago,” explains co-author Alan Tennyson.
“This loss of floral diversity certainly had an impact on fruit and seed-eating birds, and may have been responsible for the subsequent loss in pigeon diversity in New Zealand.”
Today, New Zealand has just two species of native pigeons – the New Zealand Pigeon (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae) and the closely-related Chatham Island Pigeon (Hemiphaga chathamensis, neither of whom have famous relatives.