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First 3D Atlas of Extinct Dodo Created

A full description has been made of the skeletal anatomy of a bird synonymous with the word extinction.

The first-ever 3D atlas of the dodo's skeletal anatomy has been created, based on the best known skeletons of a bird synonymous with the word extinction.

The atlas, now published in the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, is the first document to display the dodo skeleton with proportional accuracy, say its creators, a team of international scientists. The atlas also describes previously unknown dodo bones such as kneecaps, ankles, and wrists.

Dodo Birds Not So Dumb After All

"Being able to examine the skeleton of a single, individual dodo, truly allows us to grasp what an actual dodo looked like and how it must have operated in its island environment," said project co-contributor Leon Claessens, of the College of the Holy Cross's biology department, in a statement.

The "island" in question was Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, off the east coast of Madagascar. The huge – about 3 feet tall and weighing up to 40-plus pounds - flightless bird was well adapted to life there. At least it was until Dutch colonists arrived on the island and the bird went extinct by 1693, within about 100 years of man's arrival.

(The likely culprit for the dodo's demise, though, was not human hunting but rather the animals that came with the colonists. Dogs, cats, and rats likely wreaked havoc with dodo eggs and young dodos.)

Dodo Bird 3D Scan Reveals Previously Unknown Bones

There are only two near-complete dodo skeletons in existence, each discovered between 1899 and 1910 by amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux. One represents the only known complete skeleton from a single individual dodo. The other is considered near-complete and may contain bones from more than one dodo.

All other dodo samples, the atlas creators say, are not complete and use the bones of many different individual birds.

Giant Flightless Bird Once Roamed the Arctic

Curiously, the Thirioux skeletons had never before been scientifically described, the atlas authors say.

"Despite a wealth of scientific and popular documentation, the life history of the dodo continues to elude us," said Julian Hume, of the Natural History Museum in the United Kingdom. "More is known about population structure, nesting behavior, 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."

Now, though, years of research and 3D surface-scanning may put Thirioux's dodo skeletons at the forefront of inquiry about the doomed bird.

"We are very pleased that we can finally share [Thirioux's] nearly forgotten discoveries with scientists and the public around the globe, and are excited by the new investigations that it will hopefully inspire," said Claessens.

This 3D scan of the Thirioux dodo skeleton on display at the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa has been digitally remounted by the atlas creators so it stands in an anatomically correct pose.

New technologies could make it possible to bring extinct species back to life, concludes a paper published on April 4 in the journal Science. These advances include back-breeding (assembling or reassembling an extinct species' genes), cloning and genetic engineering.

Woolly Mammoth

A leading candidate for de-extinction is the woolly mammoth. Russian scientist Semyon Grigoriev, of the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum, plans to replace the nuclei of an elephant egg with nuclei extracted from woolly mammoth bone marrow. The elephant would theoretically become a surrogate mother to a baby mammoth.

Tasmanian Tiger

Tasmanian tigers died out in 1936, in part because they had little genetic diversity which translates to "bad news for a species," said Katherine Belov, professor of comparative genomics at the University of Sydney. "Species are less able to adapt to change." Even if Tasmanian tigers -- or other animals -- are resurrected, it will take some time to build up diversity again.

Passenger Pigeon

Experts believe billions of these birds populated the Americas when Europeans arrived. Loss of habitat and commercial exploitation of the birds for their meat are thought to have killed them all off.

Efforts are now underway to revive the species by extracting DNA fragments from preserved specimens, and later, using band-tailed pigeons as surrogate parents.

Pyrenean Ibex

The Pyrenean ibex, a horned mammal once common in Europe, was one of the first subspecies targeted for de-extinction. Scientists began the attempts in late 1990s, when the last female Pyrenean ibex was still alive. Even if researchers could successfully clone that individual, there would be no males for her to breed with. Instead, genetic engineering might be required.

Saber-toothed Cat

Since saber-toothed cat bodies are sometimes found frozen, it might be possible to extract preserved DNA and clone the animal. About 5 years ago, scientists did just that with a mouse that was dead and frozen for 16 years. Woolly mammoth remains are also sometimes found in a well-preserved, frozen state.

Dodo Bird

The dodo, a flightless bird, proved to be a tasty meal for humans and other predators. In 2007, scientists found a remarkably well-preserved dodo in a cave. Dodo DNA could be used to resurrect this avian species.

Ground Sloth

Ground sloths, relatively slow, lumbering animals, were easy targets for prehistoric big-game hunters. Scientists have found remains that still bear soft tissue. As with woolly mammoths, there's a chance extracted DNA could be used to back-breed or clone the large sloths.

Irish Elk

The Irish elk has been extinct for 11,000 years. Like the woolly mammoth, it inhabited colder regions. As a result, bodies are sometimes found frozen and in relatively good condition, making them candidates for DNA extraction.


Earlier this year, Harvard geneticist George Church -- with tongue in cheek -- said that he was seeing an "adventurous female human" to be a surrogate mother to a cloned Neanderthal. While Church was really just theorizing about what it would take to bring a Neanderthal back to life, the possibility could be a reality, should any scientist undertake such a controversial project.


Paleontologist Jack Horner is leading a project to create a dinosaur out of a chicken -- a "dinochicken." He told Discovery News that birds "are dinosaurs, so technically we're making a dinosaur out of a dinosaur." He and his colleagues have been genetically engineering chickens to reactivate ancestral traits, such as long tails, which are more associated with non-avian dinosaurs.