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Hopes for dodo DNA rise

10 August 2007

A recent find of a dodo skeleton raises hopes of getting genetic material from the extinct flightless bird.

At the end of 2006, biologists looking for cave cockroaches in caves in the Mauritius highlands accidentally came across the remains of a dodo skeleton.

Model of the extinct dodo in the Museum gallery.

Model of the extinct dodo in the Museum gallery.

The dodo skeleton, nicknamed 'Fred' after one of its discoverers, was at the bottom of a chamber inside the cave. The bones were very badly decomposed and fragile.

However, there is a chance of obtaining DNA from the bones because the cave conditions were favourable for DNA preservation - a stable temperature and dry to slightly humid environment are essential.

Collecting the dodo

Lorna Steel, fossil expert at the Natural History Museum, traveled to Mauritius in July to help collect and preserve the dodo specimen.

Museum fossil expert Lorna Steel climbing down deep into the cave to the dodo bones.

Museum fossil expert Lorna Steel climbing down deep into the cave to the dodo bones.

'I was a little concerned about the stability of the boulder chamber where we were working,' said Lorna, 'so I was keen to get the bones out as fast as possible, but without damaging them or losing any contextual information. It was a great relief to finally reach daylight again!'

Photos and drawings were taken of the specimen while it was still in position in the cave. This is to record the bones in context with their surroundings.

Next the bones were carefully removed as they are extremely delicate. A chemical called paraloid was applied to them to make them stronger. Finally they were packed in custom-made supports and taken to the local museum.

Extinction

The dodo, Raphus cucullatus , became extinct in the late 1600s, only 80 years after Europeans discovered it. Dodos laid their eggs on the ground, making them easy targets for introduced predators such as rats and pigs, and it was for this reason that it probably became extinct.

Destruction of the natural habitat by human arrivals also occured, so extinction became inevitable for the dodo and many other species, both animal and plant.

Why was it in the cave?

This is the first time dodo remains have been found in the Mauritius highlands. Previous finds are all from coastal areas.

Bones from the dodo's foot. © L Steel

Bones from the dodo's foot. © L Steel

Scientists think Fred may have entered the cave to seek shelter from a violent cyclone, fell down a deep hole and could not climb out. The dodo remains were found along side those of another extinct bird, the Mauritian owl.

If scientists are able to extract DNA from Fred, it will be of great scientific value as we know very little about the genetics of the dodo. It may also be possible to use dating methods to find out how long Fred had been lying in the cave.

Bones from the marsh

Numerous bones of dodos and other extinct animals were found in a coastal marsh, the Mare aux Songes , in 1865, by a teacher called George Clark. His collections are in museums all around the world.

The marsh was filled in with rubble by the British Army in the 1940s to prevent malaria and was feared lost to science. However, a Japanese team drilled through the rubble in the late 1990s, and re-discovered a bone-bed dating to 4000 years ago.

An Anglo-Dutch-Mauritian team excavated the marsh in 2005 and 2006, and the 2007 fieldwork is currently under way (go to the blog link below). The bones are well preserved and hopefully DNA will be successfully collected.

Further Information

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