These skeletons contained previously unknown bones of the dodo, such as its kneecaps. The complete specimen also preserved the original skeletal proportions of the dodo that composites made of several birds did not. [See Images of the Dodo Bird Skeletons and Laser Scans]
"The 3D laser surface scans we made of the fragile Thirioux dodo skeletons enabled us to reconstruct how the dodo walked, moved and lived to a level of detail that has never been possible before," Claessens said. "There are so many outstanding questions about the dodo bird that we can answer with this new knowledge."
For instance, by 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 smaller ancestors of the dodo must have flown to Mauritius no more than 8 million years ago, when geologists suggest the volcanic island was born. Animals on islands often grow to gigantic sizes when they do not face the same competition as they do on the mainland.
"The dodo must have experienced a fourfold increase in body mass compared to its ancestors, if not an eightfold increase," Claessens said. "If that happened in 8 million years or less, that's a rapid increase. It raises the question of how the dodo would have continued to evolve if it weren't for 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," Claessens added.
In the future, the researchers "will investigate how the jaw muscles in the dodo's amazingly robust skull might have worked," Claessens said. "My best guess is that it was eating tremendously hard seeds, but who knows, maybe it was eating crabs."
The scientists detailed their findings today (Nov. 6) at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Berlin.
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