Meet One of the World’s Rarest Avian Marvels: The Samoan “Little Dodo”, also known as the manumea, or as the tooth-billed pigeon.
By Orkhan Huseynli
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Introducing the “Little Dodo”
Earning the moniker “little Dodo,” the tooth-billed pigeon emerges as a near kin to the iconic and extinct Dodo. Yet, sadly, the current population of this species has dwindled to fewer than 200 birds.
In the distinct islands of Polynesia, an enigmatic bird species continues to uphold its own uniqueness. Once, the English naturalist and geologist Richard Lydekker (1849–1915) deemed the tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris) perhaps the most captivating member of its group, thanks to its relation to the Dodo. This bird, known as Manumea in local dialect, meaning “red bird” or “precious bird”, is native to the Samoan Islands and is part of a sizable pigeon species. However, as the last surviving member in its genus, Didunculus, manumea now stands as the solitary representative within the extensive and diverse Columbidae family, which includes around 310 species of pigeons and doves.
Ecology and Distribution
Tooth-billed pigeons reside on both major Samoan islands, Upolu and Savai’i, likely restricted to pristine forested areas like Falease’ela, Uafato, Malololelei, Falealupo, Aleipata, Aopo, Asau, Taga and Salelologa, from sea level to an altitude of 1,600 meters. They do not migrate. The scarcity of recent records and the absence of sightings reported by local residents strongly indicate that the population of the tooth-billed pigeon is currently extremely small.
Dependable local hunters have conveyed a sustained decrease in manumea populations over the course of decades, yet maintain that the species endures in the Uafato and Malololelei forests on Upolu island and in the Aopo and Taga areas on Savai’i. Among the most recent are the sightings, reported in August 2020 on Savai’i. Also, the bird was spotted twice during a field survey in Uafato.
The Samoa Conservation Society (SCS), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Samoa (MNRE), Samoa Tourism Authority (STA), Save the Manumea, Flinch, and other initiatives are constantly engaged with manumea-friendly villages and other communities, identifying crucial hotspots for remaining populations.
The SCS and the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment have been working closely, conducting thorough surveys from Uafato to Falealupo. In a recent observation in October 2023, the SCS reported that the total population is now believed to have dropped below 200 individuals. Today, its official classification remains critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
The bird is so rare that we do not have any recent decent photos of it captured, which would be fresh for viewers and enthusiasts all over the planet.
Origins and Behavior
Tooth-Billed Pigeon is believed to have been first encountered in the late 1830s during the United States’ Exploring Expedition. In September 1844, the naturalist of the expedition, Mr. Titian Peale, announced the discovery of the Tooth-Billed Pigeon as one of the obtained species. One year later, in July 1845, the first official description of the Tooth-Billed Pigeon was published.
Phylogenetic research suggests that the tooth-billed pigeon holds the position of the most ancient living member within the Columbidae clade. In addition to its living counterpart, a now-extinct relative, the tongan tooth-billed pigeon, is exclusively documented through subfossil remains discovered in archaeological sites across the Tonga Islands.
Due to the Scottish naturalist William Jardine’s description, manumea was the size of a “common stock dove.” Actually, the bird is akin in size to a chicken, distinguished by its comparatively large head among other pigeon species. The bird’s jaw and tongue structure, coupled with the bill’s outward similarity to that of a parrot, could indicate a possible affiliation with parrots. However, these features are a result of its specialized fruit diet rather than indicating an actual biological relationship.
The tooth-billed pigeon exclusively consumes specific types of fruit, such as the local Maota berries (Dxsoxylum sp.), that other birds cannot eat.
While the distinct hook shape of the pigeon’s red bill, along with the bird’s size and isolation on an island, resembles that of the Dodo, studies have revealed that its connections align closely with the Dodo. In fact, it stands as one of the Dodo’s nearest living relatives, so the genus name Didunculus (“little dodo”) was given for a reason.
Very little is known about the pigeon’s behavior. Being naturally shy birds, they are supposed to live in small groups. During the search for a mate, the male employs an advertising call from a treetop, a brief vocalization lasting only a few seconds. This is a short call that lasts just a couple of seconds. Examining available literature and information gleaned from museum specimens, including those at the New York Natural History Museum, reveals that the tooth-billed pigeon usually initiates its breeding season once a year, from May to November (Whitmee, 1874), producing one or possibly two hatchlings.
It constructs nests in ground-level locations, encountering substantial risks of predation, and has been further imperiled by habitat loss since the 1970s, especially on Savai’i. Although the manumea’s nest has never been officially documented, reports from 1987 indicate nests were observed at heights ranging from 5 to 25 meters within dense foliage. The identification of eggs further contributes to the documentation of the bird’s habitats.
Their distinctive behavior, unlike many other bird species, involves using their feet to secure food while pecking off pieces. Also, they use a unique method of drinking by scooping water into their bill rather than using their tongue.
Conservation Threats and Imperatives
Unfortunately, without intervention, the “little Dodo” might face the same fate as its famous relative. Manumea bears substantial importance as a symbol of Samoa’s natural heritage, playing a pivotal role in shielding communities from the effects of climate change. It achieves this by consuming challenging native seeds and serving as a vital seed disperser for the natural regeneration of native forest ecosystems.
In Samoa’s deeply hierarchical native social structure, where pigeon hunts were once a sacred tradition exclusively undertaken by village matai, the local chiefs, the legal prohibition of manumea hunting for over 25 years has not deterred its persistence, with the prized meat remaining highly valued among Samoan elites. Today, the engagement of matai becomes highly valuable in the fight against habitat loss and hunting.
Image: Ulf Andersson/Flickr
The persistent impact of cyclones, the intrusion of non-native tree species, the encroachment of invasive species into sacred spaces, and the unintended toll inflicted by hunters all contribute to worsening the situation. In particular, invasive animals such as feral cats, rats, and pigs pose a threat to pigeon’s eggs and chicks. Cyclones exacerbate the degradation of forest quality by not only destroying fruiting trees but also creating openings for invasive plants, hindering the recovery of native trees.
Once vibrant and full of life, Samoa’s pristine rainforests now show the scars of extensive agricultural encroachment. The conservation imperative revolves around unraveling the intricacies of survival by identifying the remaining havens, deciphering the secrets of breeding biology, and mapping out spatial needs. Conservation policies demand time and persistent commitment that respect existing legislation.
About the Author
Orkhan Huseynli is a freelance science and environmental writer. His academic journey has encompassed fields such as Public Administration, Management, and Economics, culminating in a master’s degree in Environmental Economics and a Ph.D. specialization in Industrial Management.
Transitioning from a career in IT, Orkhan is now dedicated to pursuing his passion for science and popular science writing. Orkhan is keen to contribute his writing skills to the world of articles and essays, covering topics like Climate Change, Biodiversity, Environmental Economics, Ecology, Paleoscience, and Environmental Politics.
For him, the prospect of writing for scientific outlets represents a chance to share his knowledge and raise awareness about crucial scientific advancements, fulfilling his aspiration to engage with a broader readership.