Everyone knows the story of the dodo, right? Big, slow, dumb, pear-shaped bird that basically deserved its extinction when hungry colonists arrived on its isolated island home of Mauritius in the 17th century. Not so fast. Paleontologist Leon Claessens at the University of the Holy Cross has spent the last four years using 3-D scans and virtual reconstructions to rewrite the story of this much-maligned bird, as described in this recent Audubon article by Jennifer Huizen.
Claessens’s work is laid upon the three-foot-tall frames of the two most complete dodo skeletons available today. Any skeletons you may have seen at your local natural history museum are almost certainly jerry-rigged composites made of ossified odds and ends from multiple individual birds—as a result, they don’t accurately capture the proportions of a single bird.
He and his team scanned the delicate skeletons using lasers to create detailed 3-D virtual reconstructions. The digitized skeletons give paleontologists around the world access to the best existing evidence of the bird’s biology.
In addition to an overall slimmer, more “dynamic” bird, Claessens and his team have also revealed entirely unknown aspects of dodo anatomy. According to a report last year from Charles Q. Choi at Live Science, the new bones included kneecaps, which have relevance to how well the bird was able to move. Choi writes:
[B]y discovering new dodo knee and ankle bones, “we can learn a lot about how it moved,” Claessens said. “It will make a tremendous difference in calculations of the muscle force the dodo could have generated.”
The researchers also found that the dodo’s breastbone, or sternum, lacked a keel, unlike the Rodrigues solitaire, a closely related extinct flightless pigeon that was known to have used its wings in combat. This suggests that dodos fought each other less than Rodrigues solitaires fight each other.
The keel on a bird’s sternum is there for the big breast muscles needed to power flight. Lack of a keel may also shed light on the evolutionary history of the birds, as loss of a keel often accompanies the evolution of flightlessness.
Claessens isn’t the first to broach the idea that the dodo might not be the dolt we take it for. Paleontologist Brian Switek wrote an excellent 2011 Wired story unraveling the cultural game of telephone that has given us our warped modern image of the bird.
The species vanished in a time before anyone really understood the stakes of extinction. The bird went extinct in the 1660s, and hardly anyone thought to make good records of this unique bird. Thus, the supply of reliable evidence of dodo biology is extremely limited. Even accurate drawings are rare, writes Switek:
Most artists who illustrated the bird had not seen a living specimen. This situation left at least one tell-tale sign in artistic renderings of the bird—the enlarged nostrils. Sketches of live and recently deceased birds show the nostrils as being very small, but in skeletons and stuffed specimens the soft tissue was gone, leaving the nasal cavity open and looking relatively large.
Taxidermied animals weren’t much better, as they too were typically mounted by people who’d never seen the animal in the wild. Contrary to popular perception, taxidermy isn’t as simple as putting the pieces of a puzzle back together, so even with a good skeleton and intact skin to work with, there’s no guarantee of accuracy.
For a species that went from discovered to dead in the blink of a historical eye, dodos have left an enduring mark on our cultural consciousness. The mystery surrounding its life has been obscured by the mythology of its death. Claessens and his team are planning to publish revised models of the bird later this year in the Journal of Paleontology—perhaps then we’ll get to meet the species we’ve been eulogizing for the last 350 years.