Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics

New research says dodo stood proudly upright

22 March 2016

Today, exactly 150 years after the first reconstruction of a dodo skeleton, a new monograph on this giant pigeon which became extinct in the 17th century was published. For the first time ever, the 15th Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has described a complete skeleton of a dodo in minute detail and depicted it in an anatomically correct posture. This posture is quite different from the old version. The dodo appears to have been a resilient bird which stood proudly upright and which was perfectly adapted to its environment.

The dodo skeleton which paleontologist Sir Richard Owen reconstructed 150 years ago was not complete and was compiled from a collection of loose bones which had been found in marshland on Mauritius. As the basis for his reconstruction of the skeleton Owen used a silhouette of a dodo based on a painting by Roelandt Savery (1576-1639), fitting bones together like a jigsaw puzzle. This resulted in a bent over, unstable bird.

The new scientific atlas depicts a more plausible image of the bird. This is partly thanks to barber and amateur paleontologist Etienne Thirioux, who, between 1899 and 1910, made a number of unusual discoveries on the island of Mauritius, including that of the only complete skeleton of a single dodo. This skeleton had been on display in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius, for many years, but had never before been the subject of scientific research. The second dodo skeleton which was researched in detail also comes from Thirioux and is on display in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. This skeleton is also largely complete but contains bones from several specimens.

US-based Dutch researcher Leon Claessens and his team scanned the two Thirioux skeletons bone by bone using a 3D laser scanner and then depicted them in a more plausible posture. The research conducted on the skeletons brought a number of remarkable details to light. Researcher Hanneke Meijer came to the conclusion that the dodo’s bill was disproportionately large in comparison with its skull and discovered that the bill had a kind of locking system which allowed the bird to bite firmly. Claessens discovered that the dodo had ossified kneecaps, which suggests that the bird was capable of walking or running quickly. Both these facts (running and biting) were referred to in travel journals from the 17th century. Science now appears to support these testimonies.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

Habitat

The monograph starts with a reconstruction of the ecosystem of the dodo, which is based on research on a 4,200-year-old dodo mass grave on Mauritius uncovered by Kenneth Rijsdijk in 2005. Rijsdijk: ‘We had to do almost 10 years of research in the field to understand what the ecosystem of the dodo was like and why thousands of these birds died during an extreme change in climate 4,200 years ago. The dodo however seems to have been a resilient bird and managed to survive – until a more serious threat came along: humans, who brought with them rats and pigs which gorged on the dodo’s eggs. That quickly put paid to the dodo.’

The research is led by Leon Claessens (College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, US), Kenneth Rijsdijk (University of Amsterdam), Hanneke Meijer (University Museum of Bergen, Norway) and Julian Hume (Natural History Museum, London). Claessens, Rijsdijk and Meijer began the research into the habitat and anatomy of the dodo at Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.

Publication details

Leon P. A. M. Claessens, Hanneke J. M. Meijer, Julian P. Hume en Kenneth F. Rijsdijk (eds.): Memoir 15. Anatomy of the Dodo (Raphus cucullatus L., 1758): An Osteological Study of the Thirioux Specimens, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, Volume 35: supplement to Number 6, Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 15.

Published by  UvA Persvoorlichting