A dodo skeleton, which has been hidden away in the Durban Natural Science Museum for almost 100 years, may be one of the top two specimens of its kind in the world.

The bird, which has escaped scientific investigation for centuries, is now being carefully examined by American scientist Leon Claessens using new technology.

At one stage thought to be a creature of mythology, dodos are today an icon of extinction and the ultimate symbol of the tragedy of biological destruction caused by human greed.

The Durban dodo skeleton was bought in 1919 by the museum curator at the time and brought to the city from the volcanic island of Mauritius. It is one of the most complete and best preserved in the world.

The skeleton is one of two that were prepared by Mauritian scientist Etienne Thirioux at the turn of the last century. The other is on display in the main museum of Mauritius. Both skeletons were found in a cave and are relatively recent in origin, which explains their excellent preservation and completeness.

Over the next two weeks, Claessens will be using 3D laser surface scanner technology to examine the skeleton. The surface scanner consists of a high-resolution camera and a laser, which are finely tuned to one another. As the laser shines on part of the skeleton, the camera will photograph that area, scaling down to one millionth of a metre. “The entire skeleton will be scanned like this,” said Claessens.

Once the scans are complete, more research can be done on the bird, using computer software to reconstruct muscles over the bones, which can show how the dodo’s limbs moved.

Dodos, which were closely related to the pigeon, were large flightless birds that lived only in Mauritius. They stood over a metre tall and weighed at least 20kg. “The first humans recorded on the island arrived in 1598,” said Claessens. “Back then, the concept of extinction didn’t exist, and people thought these animals were a limitless resource.”

Hunting and forest clearing by settlers and predation of dodo eggs and chicks by pigs, monkeys, dogs, cats and rats introduced to the island helped seal the birds’ fate.

Almost 200 years after the extinction of the large bird, scientists found a swamp on the island filled with dodo bones, but a complete skeleton was never found. These bones were collected until 1930, when the swamp was filled in to avoid the spread of malaria. Mauritius airport now stands on the spot.

Claessens, who has been in Durban for a week, has confirmed that the Durban skeleton is different from the ones found in the swamp, which were assembled from many birds. “I am convinced that this skeleton, like the one in Mauritius, comes from a single dodo, and that makes it one of the top two specimens in the world.

“There is so much we don’t know about what animals do and how they live,” said Claessens. “Dodos have been forgotten over time, but this study will allow us to answer questions that could not be answered before. This is something fantastic, and the potential for the public to learn about this specimen is invaluable.”

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