Why the Dodo Deserves a New Reputation

Armed with 3-D scanning technology, one researcher is out to reinvent our perception of a long-extinct bird.

According to the dictionary, a “dodo” is either a dull-witted, slow-reacting person, or a clumsy, extinct bird—and the first definition rose out of the second. But to Leon Claessens, a Dutch paleontologist at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts, the Dodo is “a very complex, dynamic animal,” that deserves a little more respect—and maybe a better PR agent.

Evidence found by Claessens and his team may just be enough to shatter the stereotype. The researchers spent the past five years examining every inch of the only two complete Dodo skeletons known to scientists. By studying the way the muscles and tendons attached to the bird’s bones, they’ve realized that the 3-foot-tall, 40-pound avian was much more sleekly proportioned and graceful than previously imagined. They also discovered kneecaps on the birds, which could mean it had better mobility on the ground.

The work included describing some bones never before catalogued, so in a way, they’re building the first-ever Dodo atlas. The team also posed some new questions about the origins of the species: For example, why are its hindquarters so similar to that of pigeons when there’s such an immense weight and size difference between the two birds? Though the Dodo is pegged as part of the pigeon and dove family, its closest relative is thought to be the Rodrigues Solitaire—another flightless and extinct bird. Is it possible that the Dodo is more like our modern-day pigeons and less like the solitaire?

So far the truth about all these mysteries has been buried because no one has ever scientifically examined a real Dodo. Most museums have composites built from the bones of many different individuals, which sacrifices the mechanical and anatomical specificities of the species. Historical sketches aren’t a big help either—only two of the Dodo drawings on record were by people who saw the bird in real life. Ultimately, our perception of the Dodo is far more myth than science, Claessens says.

Claessens has spent years building a more accurate idea of the big bird. In 2011, he and his team tracked down the two authentic skeletons—one located in Mauritius, the other in South Africa—and using 3-D non-contact lasers, scanned the valuable 300-year-old (or more) specimens to create virtual models for further head-to-toe analysis. Their revisions, which point to a sleeker Dodo, are slated for publication in the The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology later this year.

“These skeletons open up interesting new roads into the study of the biology of the Dodo, especially now that they have been digitized,” says Gareth Dyke, a paleontologist from the University of Southampton who helped review the team’s upcoming publication.

So if the Dodo was such a delightful, well-adapted specimen of a bird, why did it go extinct? Thank humans. Living on a remote isle in the Indian Ocean with few hunters and competitors, like many island species, the Dodo was able to grow to unusual proportions and outcompete other birds for food and habitat. They thrived on Mauritius—until the end of the 16th century when Dutch spice traders began stopping at the island on their way to India and hunting the turkey-sized Dodo. Their ships also brought rats and cats that wreaked havoc on the local birds. In the 1630s, the Dutch started clearing land for crops, and introduced pigs, dogs, and goats to Mauritius. Around 60 years later, the bird went completely extinct.

“No living thing could handle that kind of sudden Blitzkrieg,” says Claessens. “Without us, the Dodo was very likely an evolutionary success story, but with us, they were gone in less than 100 years.”

The paleontologists are still searching for more specifics on how Dodos walked, fed, and socialized, and they’d like to define the timeline of the species’ evolution and decline. “If we really understood the Dodo’s story, we could distill these lessons to species facing extinction today,” Claessens says. “And maybe finally comprehend just what kind of amazing creature we lost.”