Dodo for sale


The first near-complete Dodo skeleton to be sold in almost 100 years has come up for auction.

As Birdwatch publishes the second part of David Callahan's series on extinct birds next week in its October issue (on sale 22 September), Summers Place Auctions, a Sussex-based Natural History auction house, has announced the sale of a 95 per cent complete composite skeleton of a Dodo — the first to come up for sale since the early 20th century. It will be part of the fourth Evolution sale at Summers Place Auctions on Tuesday 22 November this year.

Due to the rarity of specimens of this charismatic and symbolic species, the Dodo is expected to surpass previous results achieved in previous such specialised sales. Only one single individual Dodo skeleton exists that is made up from the bones of a single animal; the others (and there are only a dozen that are relatively complete) are composites made up from bones that belonged to several individuals.

Extinct bird artist and author Errol Fuller, Summers Place Auctions' Natural History curator, said: "The best examples of composite skeletons in museums around the world include those in London’s Natural History Museum, the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge, the Durban Natural Science Museum, the Leiden Naturalis Museum, the Paris Natural History Museum and the Smithsonian in Washington. This highlights the fact that Dodo skeletons are extremely rare.

"When researching the Dodo for one of my books, Dodo: From Extinction to Icon, it became obvious that most museums had acquired their specimens many years ago and [that] no relatively complete skeleton has been put together since the early 20th century. When Summers Place Auctions was offered this Dodo, you can imagine my excitement. I am sure I won't be the only one among Dodo experts who thinks that this is an amazingly rare opportunity for the acquisition of one of the great icons of extinction."

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The Dodo skeleton is a composite, but just a few tiny pieces are missing (Photo: Summers Place Auctions)

The Dodo skeleton offered by the auctioneers comes from a private collector, who over decades has purchased bones from private collections and other auctions. He started collecting in the 1970s and bought the majority of Dodo bones then and in the 1980s. Like most collectors, he spent years adding to his collection and it was only in the early 2000s that he realised he had enough bones (only lacking part of the skull and one set of claws, which have been reconstructed) to construct a skeleton.

He then meticulously reassembled them to create as complete a specimen as possible, but has now decided to part with his Dodo and make this the first composite skeleton ever made available at auction. It is highly unlikely that another composite skeleton will ever come up for auction again. Any newly discovered bones from the Mare aux Songes swamp - where the vast majority of Dodo bones have been found since the 19th century — will not be for sale as the Mauritian Government has rightly banned all exports of Dodo bones.

Many of the other known skeletons lack the majority of the smaller elements, including toes, claws, the scapula, and the rare wing elements of radius, ulna, and carpometacarpus. The sternum, which is incredibly fragile, is rarely intact and the quadrates and jugal bones of the skull are mostly unavailable, as is the atlas bone of the first vertebra of the neck. These parts are usually substituted with replicas modelled from a variety of materials. All of these elements are present in this amazing example, making it around 95 per cent complete.

Only rivalled by Tyrannosaurus rex as an icon of extinction, Dodo has also become a cultural and literary icon, including being famously featured in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Author Lewis Carroll often visited the Ashmolean Museum with the young Alice Liddell to inspect the dried dodo head which then existed there (now transferred to the Oxford University Zoological Museum), and these visits served as part of the inspiration for his celebrated book.

The Dodo was a flightless pigeon species which only lived on the island of Mauritius. First seen by Dutch sailors in September of 1598, it became extinct just 70 years or so after its discovery.