Digging up the dodo

Published Jan 18, 2012


Unique to the island of Mauritius and now extinct, it was described as a flightless plump creature with a bulbous beak and short dumpy legs, fondly immortalised in the classic, Alice in Wonderland.

Now it is enjoying a global avian Renaissance with international research programmes investigating its origins and history in order to understand the reasons for its demise and its failure to adapt to the Darwinian process of natural selection.

At the epicentre of this research is Durban’s Natural Science Museum, which is home to one of only two known complete dodo skeletons remaining on Earth.

American paleontologist, Leon Claessens, Professor of Biology at the Massachusetts College of the Holy Cross and one of those international scientists focusing on the dodo, believes that the museum’s dodo is of international importance and “could open the door to a new era of scientific research unlocking mysteries surrounding the process and reasons for species extinction”.

He was in Durban this week with an undergraduate research team taking a close look at the skeleton.

“It was only by chance that I heard about the Durban dodo,” said Claessens, who is currently on a year’s research fellowship at Naturalis, the natural history museum of the Netherlands in Leiden. “There is very little literature on it and very few people in the wider scientific world know of its existence.”

But that is about to change.

Claessens and his team are using modern digital technology to record every tiny detail of the Durban dodo. When fully transcribed the material will be reproduced on a special 3D internet-based site for the world to see.

“You have something here which is iconic and unique and which needs to be incorporated in an ongoing research programme. At present we can only conduct non-invasive research because of the scarcity of the material. We would love to try to extract DNA from the bone structure and take it through a CAT scan, but when you only have one or two like it in the world, it is out of the question. But in the future, who knows what technology will be able to achieve?”

Claessens’s specific interest in the dodo is its development of movement mechanisms, co-ordination, and habitat at the time of its demise and possible links to other similar species.

Some might ask why so much time and effort needs to be put into a subject that many may deem to be as “dead as a dodo”.

Claessens explains why.

“In evolutionary terms the dodo has been lost recently to the world and yet we have less information about this species than we have about dinosaurs that became extinct millions of years ago. We need to understand not only the process that led to the dodo’s extinction, but the time it took, so that we can prevent tragedies like that happening again.”

He said that work in progress by scientists like Dr Kenneth Rijsdijk from the University of Amsterdam, Netherlands geo hydrologist Dr Perry de Louw Deltares, Julian Hume from the University of Oxford as well as the Mauritius Museums Council had put the dodo firmly back on track.

“Samples taken from core drilling in Mauritius tell us that the dodo existed for no more than a few million years, which is a mere second in time and that it took just 100 years after the first Dutch colonists arrived on the island for it to become extinct.”

Detritus gathered from excavation sites, he said, show that the birds were not eaten by the islanders, but were extensively hunted by sailors for food and fell prey to other elements.

“We still don’t know how it arrived on the island, possibly (it) was blown in after a storm. However, in its original form it was no larger than a pigeon and we know that it was genetically related to the thickset Nicobar pigeon from the Malayan islands.”

It landed, as Claessens puts it “in heaven”. When it arrived the island of Mauritius was uninhabited, had abundant food and no predators. From a relatively small bird, it became larger and larger, over time, rather like a turkey.

It was able to lay its eggs on bare ground without risk of them being stolen or damaged.

“Life was perfect for the dodo until the humans came,” said Claessens. “Although there is no evidence to suggest that the colonists used the dodo for food, the emergence of monkeys, dogs, cats, foraging pigs and rats, immediately put pressure on the dodo’s habitat. It had no time to adapt or evolve other defence mechanisms, so it simply disappeared off the face of the Earth, without fanfare, and at that time without anyone noting or regretting its disappearance.”

As yet the Mauritian cave where the two surviving dodo skeletons were found is unknown. The swamp, in an area known as Mare aux Songes (Sea of Dreams) near the coast in the south-east of the island, is a protected site where hundreds of dodo bones and tortoise remains have been collected, but no complete skeleton. It is thought to have been a watering hole during severe drought.

If the dream is to unravel the mysteries of this extraordinary creature, Durban is going to be at the heart of it.

Fact file:

The Durban Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) stands about 1m tall and is considered to be a young specimen.

It was bought for £40 by the museum’s curator, Ernest Chubb, in 1919 from Mauritian barber and amateur excavator Etienne Thirioux, who restored two skeletons found in a volcanic cave more than 100 years ago.

The birds are thought to have fallen through a crevice in the rock, becoming trapped.

Until a century or so ago, only rude descriptions of unscientific voyages, and three or four oil paintings, survived the neglect of 200 years.

The dodo thrived on the island during the reign of Charles the First.

A few attempts were made to bring back a dodo alive from Mauritius in the 1600s.

Entrepreneurs capitalised on the bird’s looks and toured dodos around Europe, displaying them in cages and demonstrating how the dodo could “eat” stones (which it did to aid digestion). However no conservation attempts were made.

The last recorded sighting was in 1662 – the year Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I, died.

What did the dodo look like?

According to the Sixth Extinction website the length of the dodo was about 100cm and it weighed close to 20kg. It had large legs, short little wings, a short neck and a 23cm-long enormous, thick, bowed beak.

At the end of its thickset figure the dodo had a tussle of feathers. The plumage of the dodo was greyish with darker upper parts and lighter on throat and abdomen.

The tail feathers were whitish, the thighs blackish. The bare part of the face was probably ash-coloured, while the feet and legs were yellow. The iris was probably whitish, and its beak green or black, perhaps with some yellow.

The dodo bred the whole year. She laid one egg in a grassy part of the forest, which hatched after 49 days. They were monogamous staying their whole lives together with the same partner.

Both parents took care of the young dodos.

Is it possible to clone the dodo?

Scientists have extracted DNA from a dodo, raising the prospect that the animal could be resurrected. British experts have recovered fragments of genetic material from a preserved head and foot kept in Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History.

But the genetic material has deteriorated into millions of fragments.

Once scientists have worked out the key genes, they could create genetically engineered DNA to put into the nucleus of an egg and hatch a dodo-like bird using one of the pigeons identified as the dodo’s nearest relative.

But current technology would not achieve a perfect dodo because its genetic code survives only in fragments.

For more information, go to http://Aves3D.org - Sunday Tribune

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