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article imageThe Dodo: Science uncovers new insights about an old bird

By Karen Graham     Nov 8, 2014 in Environment
Berlin - We have all heard of the dodo (Raphus cucullatus, previously Didus ineptus), described as a somewhat overweight, clumsy and tottering bird, seemingly so defenseless that it went extinct because of human predation.
The Dodo has the inglorious distinction of being mankind's most famous poster child for human-induced extinction. Even though the last known sighting of this strange bird is said to have been in 1662, very little factual knowledge of them has come down to us over the years.
A new study of the only complete skeleton from a single dodo was done recently, using modern 3-D laser scanning technology. The information gained in the study has opened the window into understanding how this animal lived, looked, and behaved. The study, entitled "New Insights into an Old Bird," was presented at the 4th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Estrel, Berlin November 6.
Photos: A new and the old dodo reconstruction. Photographed by Peter Maas (2002) at a temporary dodo...
Photos: A new and the old dodo reconstruction. Photographed by Peter Maas (2002) at a temporary dodo exposition in the National Museum of Natural History 'Naturalis' in Leiden, the Netherlands.
Peter Mass
Dr. Leon Claessens, an associate professor of biology at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA., and a lead researcher in the study said, "the 3-D laser surface scans we made of the fragile Thirioux dodo skeletons enable us to reconstruct how the dodo walked, moved and lived to a level of detail that has never been possible before. There are so many outstanding questions about the dodo bird that we can answer with this new knowledge."
Etienne Thirioux, a barber and amateur collector, owns the complete and intact skeleton of a dodo found on the island of Mauritius between 1899 and 1917. Surprisingly, this particular skeleton is from a single bird, and is the only complete skeleton in existence. Yet, it has never been studied. All other skeletons are incomplete composites.
In describing the skeleton, Julian Hume,of the Natural History Museum, UK, and a co-author on the study, said that having the opportunity to examine a real and complete skeleton, rather than composites gave researchers an "appreciation of the way the dodo looked and how tall or rotund it really was."
The 3-D scanning was done on site in Port Louis, Mauritius and Durban, South Africa. This allowed for a complete biological examination of the dodo, and how it was able to grow to such a large size, as well as how it walked about and lived in its forested, isolated island home. According to Kenneth Rijsdijk, of the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam and a study author, "the skull of the dodo is so large and its beak so robust, that it is easy to understand that the earliest naturalists thought it was related to vultures and other birds of prey, rather than the pigeon family."
The Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) was a flightless member of the pigeon order endemic to...
The Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria) was a flightless member of the pigeon order endemic to Rodrigues, Mauritius. It was a close relative of the Dodo. About One-Third Natural Size—from descriptions and drawings.
Frederick William Frohawk (16 July 1861 - 10 December 1946).
Of particular importance to the study was having a complete breastbone, or sternum to examine. The researchers discovered that based on the size of the sternum, the dodo was related in size to the extinct flightless Rodrigues solitaire, but the solitaire was known to use its wings in combat, being aggressive. The dodo, on the other hand, was missing a keel to the sternum, unlike the pigeon to whom it is related, and the solitaire. This indicates the dodo was not an antagonistic bird.
A Nicobar pigeon  the closest living relative of the Rodrigues solitaire and the dodo.
A Nicobar pigeon, the closest living relative of the Rodrigues solitaire and the dodo.
The research team has concluded the Thirioux dodo has opened a new window into an evolutionary study in why there was such a rapid increase in body size and such an abrupt change in locomotor function. Without a doubt, the change in locomotion and the massive size of the dodo made it easy prey to humans. Arab and Malay sailors reached Mauritius in the 10 th century., and the Portuguese in the 14th century. The island remained uninhabited until the Dutch colonized it in 1636.
Sailors found the dodos to be comical, and "simpletons." And of course, when the sailors ran out of fresh food, the dodos were easily caught and killed. Future settlers to the island brought dogs, cats, swine and even monkeys, along with rats. These animals proliferated and ran wild, eating the dodo eggs from the nests and the young birds. This continued interference from alien species, as well as over-hunting for food soon led to the gentle dodo's extinction.
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