A 3D scan of a dodo skull

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World's most complete dodo skeleton revealed with 3D technology

The first virtual models of the world's most complete dodo skeletons will allow scientists to investigate this extinct bird in new ways.

Museum palaeontologist Dr Julian Hume was one of an international team of researchers who spent five years assembling the anatomical atlas.

The digital reconstruction is based on the only two near-complete dodo skeletons that exist, which have remained unstudied for more than a century.

This is the first piece of research to show accurate proportions in the bird's skeleton. It also describes several previously unknown bones of the skeleton, including knee caps, ankle and wrist bones.

3D scan of a dodo skeleton

This work is the first detailed description of dodo anatomy for 150 years © Leon Claessens, MMC

Dr Hume says, 'Despite its relatively recent extinction, the life history of the dodo continues to elude us.

'More is known about the population structure, nesting behaviour, eggs and young of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, than that of a bird that disappeared in very recent historical times due to human interference.

'This 3D atlas opens up new avenues for investigating the life of this fascinating bird.'

Below is an interactive scan of the dodo from the Durban Natural Science Museum. The scans have been digitally remounted so the bird is in an anatomically correct pose.

The interactive uses WebGL to display 3D content in real-time. Check whether your browser is compatible via the Sketchfab website.

Durban Dodo Skeleton - Anatomically Correct Pose by Aves 3D on Sketchfab


A new opportunity

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus) - a giant flightless pigeon that once lived on Mauritius - is the most famous species to have gone extinct in human history. But despite its fame, little is known of its anatomy and biology.

The dodo was extinct by 1693, less than a hundred years after the discovery and colonisation of Mauritius by the Dutch.

No complete specimens survive from collections made before the bird went extinct. Only a few fragments remain: a single dried head, a skull, a beak and a foot.

Until the mid-nineteenth century, almost everything that was known about the dodo was based on illustrations and written accounts of seventeenth-century sailors.

The first scientific description of the dodo’s anatomy, based on partial skeletons, was published in 1866 by Sir Richard Owen, who helped create the Natural History Museum. 

The dodo skeleton being scanned

The dodo skeleton being scanned © KF Rijsdijk

Few updates have been published since. The new work, in the fifteenth Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, is the most comprehensive ever and the first detailed description of dodo anatomy for 150 years.

The digital reconstruction, produced using 3D laser surface scanning, provides new opportunities to investigate the palaeobiology and evolution of this little understood species.

The Thirioux skeleton

The dodo skeletons used to create the reconstruction were discovered by an amateur naturalist, Etienne Thirioux, between 1899 and 1910.

The discoveries have never been described scientifically before, despite the Thirioux skeleton in the Mauritius Institute representing the only known complete dodo skeleton, and the only one consisting of bones from just one bird.

The second Thirioux specimen, now housed in the Durban Natural Science Museum, is nearly complete but may have been put together from the remains of more than one bird. The significance of the two skeletons remained overlooked until now.

David Allan, Curator of Ornithology at Durban Natural Science Museum, adds: 'We have proudly displayed one of the two Thirioux dodo skeletons for almost a century in our public galleries, but we had no idea of the profound significance and value of this priceless specimen until this research was undertaken by Prof Leon Claessens and his team.'


Future learning

Evidence suggests that dodos were not hunted into extinction by Dutch settlers, partly because the human population of Mauritius was so low.

Instead, it’s likely that introduced species including pigs and rats caused the dodo’s extinction by competing for food sources and preying on dodo eggs and chicks.

The team that worked on this project performed 10 years of interdisciplinary research to understand what the ecosystem of the dodo looked like, both in the seventeenth century and thousands of years ago.

They hope the 3D atlas will inspire more research into the bird and the ecosystem it lived in.