More than three centuries after the last of its species walked on the isle of Mauritius, the skeleton of the dodo bird has been recreated using 3D scanning technology. The virtual model is enabling scientists to reconstruct how it walked, moved and lived to a level of detail that has never been possible before.
Arguably the most famous species that was driven to extinction in human history, the three-foot-tall dodo was killed off mostly by animals such as rats and pigs that were introduced to Mauritius after the Dutch discovered the island in 1598. Sailors ate them too, though they had low regard for the bird's flavor. By 1693, the dodo was no more.
Artist sketches from the era provide some clues as to what the dodo would have looked like when it was still alive. Those artists, however, seem to have been more interested in "depicting plump or colorful animals than recording their true likeness," according to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Measurements of dodo bones have suggested that it was, in fact, a much slimmer bird.
And now, scientists have the opportunity to study the bird's anatomy in unprecedented detail. While many dodo specimens are composites, an international team of researchers was able to gain access to the only known complete skeleton of a single bird, which had been found a century ago by Etienne Thiroux, a barber and amateur collector.
"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," says Juilan Hume, of the Natural History Museum in London.
The laser scans provide are already providing insights 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, at Amsterdam's Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, "the skull of the dodo [image, top] 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."
Another point of interest is the dodo's sternum (breastbone). It lacks a large, extended hardened blade of bone (the keel) that serves as an anchor for wing muscles and provides leverage. The dodo's closest known relative — the extinct flightless Rodrigues solitaire — had a keel and was known to have used its wings in combat. As such, the lack of a keel in the dodo skeleton suggests that the birds didn't get into fights with one another.
These ongoing insights, coupled with findings from another recent study about dodo population structure, offer an opportunity to study the bird's evolutionary trajectory — a rapid increase in body size, cut short by the arrival of humans.
"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 can inform modern conservation efforts for today's endangered animals," says College of the Holy Cross paleontologist Leon Claessens.
You can examine the virtual model of the dodo's skull at the website Aves 3D.