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.
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"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.)
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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.
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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.