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Keywords:

  • bird behaviour ;
  • intraspecific combat ;
  • Pezophaps solitaria ;
  • Raphus cucullatus ;
  • sexual dimorphism ;
  • territory

The solitaire (Columbidae; Pezophaps solitaria) of Rodrigues was an extinct giant flightless pigeon and the sister taxon to the dodo (Columbidae; Raphus cucullatus) from neighbouring Mauritius. The appearance and behaviour of the solitaire was recorded in detail by two observers before it became extinct in the mid 1700s. They described a prominent wing structure termed the ‘musket ball’ (carpal knob), which was used as a weapon and to produce an audible signal by either sex in territorial combat. Our study of subfossil solitaire bones from cave localities shows that the carpal knob formed after skeletal maturity, and reached its greatest size in adult males. We describe the morphology of the carpal knob, including its histology in thin section. It is an outgrowth of the processus extensorius of the carpometacarpus, but differs morphologically from homologous structures in other bird taxa, and thus is unique in Aves. We also compare the pectoral and wing osteology of the solitaire with that of the dodo, which had a similar morphology, but lacked any bony outgrowths on the wing. Furthermore, we suggest some biological and environmental factors leading to the evolution of this remarkable and unique carpal weapon. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 110, 32–44.