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Scientists Closer Than Ever to Discovering What the Hell the Dodo Looked Like

The dodo didn’t look like you think it did.
Edwards's Dodo, painted by Roelant Savery in 1626. Image: Wikipedia

History has not been kind to the dodo. Like a hideous specimen of bad taxidermy assembled by a person who's never actually seen the animal they're recreating, most of history's accounts of the fabled bird have suffered the effects of a little too much creative license.

The very first account of the dodo was from Heyndrick Dircksz Jolinck, a ship's mate who led an expedition on the island of Mauritius in 1598, and referred to the birds as "penguins." Jolinck, perhaps like any hungry seafarer, appeared more interested in the dodo's nutritional properties than its scientific value, adding, "these particular birds have a stomach so large that it could provide two men with a tasty meal and was actually the most delicious part of the bird."

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But now, scientists are finally able to bring the extinct bird to life with more accuracy than ever before, thanks to the first-ever 3D model of the dodo's skeletal anatomy.

The 3D skeletal atlas, published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, has allowed researchers to identify unknown bones in the dodo's skeleton, recalibrate inaccurate representations of the bird's anatomical proportions, and make new assumptions about the way it behaved in its environment.

The international team of paleontologists responsible for the new study labored for five years and poured thousands of hours into painstakingly digitizing the only two fully intact dodo skeletons presently known to man.

Dodo being scanned. Image: courtesy of K.F. Rijsdijk

According to the study, both dodo skeletons were discovered more than 100 years ago by Etienne Thirioux, a barber and unknown amateur naturalist, and spent a full century largely ignored by researchers in the collections of the Mauritius Institute and the Durban Natural Science Museum.

One of the dodo specimens is the only known complete skeleton from a single bird. The other is nearly complete, but may be an aggregate of bones from multiple birds.

Every other skeleton that we know of, including the famed Oxford dodo, is a composite reconstruction made from the bones of many different individuals. Up until now, piecing together the dodo has been like fitting together the pieces of a very complex biological puzzle.

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But thanks to Thirioux's discoveries and the use of modern 3D laser surface scanning—an imaging technique that uses geometric points to capture an object's surface shape—scientists are one step closer to demystifying one of nature's oddest birds.

One of the study's key findings revealed that previously unidentified bones were actually the dodo's ankles, wrist bones, and kneecaps.

The dodo's limbs, they found, were incredibly robust, and served the dual purpose of supporting their substantial weight (researchers have suggested the bird weighed somewhere between 9.5 to 18 kilograms) and endowing them with the agility needed to navigate Mauritius' dense, dry lowland forests that were believed to be their natural habitat. And while its wings weren't large enough to allow the dodo to fly, they did help it balance itself while moving across the ground at fast speeds.

Anatomically correct pose of the Durban dodo skeleton. Aves 3D

Unlike its living relatives in the pigeon family, the study added, the skull of the dodo was considerably more massive and uniquely shaped to accommodate its environment. Its large, distinctive beak was used both for foraging and for fighting.

"Compared to living pigeons, the dodo's skull is very different; it is much larger, with a heavy beak, and it has undergone significant changes in shape. It is easy to see why early naturalists had a hard time placing the dodo with pigeons, but its skull is testament to its unique evolutionary trajectory," said Dr. Hanneke Meijer, one of the study's authors and a post-doctoral fellow at the Smithsonian Institution, in a statement.

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Other findings countered popular theories about why the dodo died off, suggesting that over-hunting by humans was not the sole cause of their extinction, but rather predation by rats and other invasive species introduced by settlers was the main driving force behind their disappearance.

The team hopes the 3D model will enable and inspire other scientists to embark on their own investigations of dodo anatomy, behavior, and ecology. "There are so many outstanding questions about the dodo that we were not able to tackle before," said co-author Dr. Leon Claessens.

Ever since its discovery by Dutch sailors in 1598 on the then-uninhabited island of Mauritius, the dodo, with its seemingly uncategorizable appearance and peculiar attributes, has stumped everyone who has laid eyes on it. Less than a century after humans first started scientifically documenting it, it had gone extinct.

Modern scientists studying the long-gone bird have had little reliable material to work with, save for a few ships' ledgers, several skeletons, and some dessicated body parts. A large percentage of today's research efforts are dedicated to separating fact from fiction.

"Despite a wealth of scientific and popular documentation, the life history of the dodo continues to elude us. More is known about population structure, nesting behaviour, eggs and young of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, than that of a bird that disappeared in very recent historical times due to human interference," said Dr. Julian Hume, one of the study's co-authors.

But as new technology continues to breathe life into once-forgotten findings, perhaps it might be time to rethink the old saying, "dead as a dodo."