How the Dodo lived

Dodo skeletons, such as this in  London's Natural History Museum, are usually composites from many different partial specimens; the only known complete skeleton has given new insights into the species. Photo: Heinz-Josef Luecking (commons.wikimedia.org).
Dodo skeletons, such as this in London's Natural History Museum, are usually composites from many different partial specimens; the only known complete skeleton has given new insights into the species. Photo: Heinz-Josef Luecking (commons.wikimedia.org).
New insights into how the extinct Dodo lived have been divined from the only known complete skeleton in existence.

The Dodo is among the most famous extinct creatures and a 'poster child' for human-caused extinction events. Despite its notoriety, and the fact that the species was alive during recorded human history, little is actually known about how this animal lived, looked, and behaved. 

A new study of the only known complete skeleton from a single bird (other skeletons are museum-made composites) took advantage of modern 3-D laser scanning technology to open a new window into the life of this famous extinct bird. The study was presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Estrel, Berlin, this month.

Leon Claessens, Associate Professor at the College of the Holy Cross and lead researcher on the study said: “The 3-D laser surface scans we made of the fragile Thirioux Dodo skeletons enable us to reconstruct how the species walked, moved and lived to a level of detail that has never been possible before. There are so many outstanding questions about the bird that we can answer with this new knowledge.

“The relative proportions of the Dodo hind limb skeleton are similar to smaller flying columbids, but the bones are much more robust.”

A complete Dodo skeleton found by an amateur collector and barber, Etienne Thirioux, on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean sometime between 1899 and 1917, has remained unstudied even though it is the only complete skeleton from a single individual of the species known to exist. All other skeletons are incomplete composites, meaning that they are put together from the bones of more than one individual.

In addition, Professor Thirioux constructed a second, partially composite skeleton, which contains many bones that also belonged to a single bird. “Being able to examine the skeleton of a single, individual Dodo – which is not made up from as many individual birds as there are bones as is the case in all those other composite skeletons – truly allows us to appreciate the way the Dodo looked and see how tall or rotund it really was,” said Julian Hume of the Natural History Museum, a co-author on the study.

The scans were performed on site in Port Louis, Mauritius, and Durban, South Africa, and allow examination of the biology of this enigmatic extinct bird in detail for the first time. Using the newest digital tools and techniques, the scans provide an insight into how the flightless Dodo may have evolved its giant size, and how it walked and lived in its forest home. 

According to Kenneth Rijsdijk of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands, another author of the study: “The skull of the Dodo is so large and its beak so robust that it is easy to understand that the earliest naturalists thought it was related to vultures and other birds of prey rather than the pigeon family.”

Having a complete single individual has allowed study of the Dodo’s sternum (breastbone) in context. Its size relative to the closely related and also extinct flightless Rodrigues Solitaire, known to have used its wings in combat but which lacked a keel on the sternum, indicates that the Dodo may have shown less antagonistic behaviour between individuals.

Together with new information regarding Dodo population structure derived from the study of disarticulated remains from another locality, the Thirioux Dodos open a new window upon the evolutionary experiment of rapid increase in body size and shift in mode of locomotion which was cut short by ecosystem destruction as humans arrived on the island. Its flightlessness and slow walking method made it easy prey for sailors from the 10th Century onwards, as well as to the domestic animals they introduced.

“The history of the Dodo provides an important case study of the effects of human disturbance of the ecosystem, from which there is still much to learn that could inform modern conservation efforts for today’s endangered animals,” said Claessens.


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