Recreating the lost world of the dodo
Avian palaeontologist Dr Julian Hume is rediscovering the dodo by introducing old bones to new technology.
Julian explains what went wrong for the dodo, why artists exaggerate and which other forgotten species died out alongside the bird.
What do we know about the dodo (and what don't we know)?
Despite its relatively recent extinction, the life history of the dodo continues to elude us. More is known about the dinosaurs - their population structure, nesting behaviour, eggs and young - than of a bird that disappeared relatively recently due to human interference.
The dodo lived solely in Mauritius and we know it was extinct by around 1680, less than 100 years after humans inhabited its island home. But we don't know exactly how it got there in the first place, how it evolved, how big it grew or how it behaved.
You spent five years creating a virtual 3D model of a dodo. Why was that so important?
There is only one near-complete dodo skeleton that exists, consisting of bones from just one bird, and it has remained unstudied until the twenty-first century.
It is extremely rare and valuable, and it is housed in the Durban Natural Science Museum.
We recreated the whole bird in 3D with laser surface scanning technology. This is the first piece of research to show accurate proportions in the bird's body. It also describes several previously unknown bones of the skeleton, including knee caps and ankle and wrist bones.
It allows scientists to examine the skeleton without having to visit it, or risking damage to the precious specimen.
How will the model be used in the future?
The key thing about this model is it's based on a complete skeleton of just one bird. It means that any measurements you take from it are proportionally correct.
The next step in reconstructing this extinct animal is the creation of animatronics, or robots. But to work out exactly how the dodo moved, we need to know these exact measurements. Then we can work out how the muscles worked inside the body.
The dodo was a giant ground pigeon, unlike anything living today. As we can't make comparisons, we have to rely on maths and measurements.
We do know it moved quickly, and sailors reported that it had something a little odd about its movements. It will be fascinating to look into the dodo's lifestyle more closely.
How long has it taken science to get to this point?
Richard Owen, the inaugural director of the Museum, rose to fame in 1866 when he first described the dodo.
The composite skeleton he put together is still at the Museum, in the Treasures Cadogan Gallery.
Our digital model was finished in 2016. There have been no major new discoveries during the 150 years in between.
There have been hundreds of papers and books on the dodo in that period, but they haven't told us much that we didn't know from Owen's time.
This is because we have very few remains to work with and they're scattered in museums across the world. My work teases out little new snippets of information from the bones that we do have left.
For a long time it was assumed that dodos were fat and stupid. Where did that come from?
The first illustrations of the dodo were by mariners visiting Mauritius - they showed a slim, athletic bird.
Over the following decades the image changed. Each illustrator wanted to make it bigger, fatter and more grotesque than previous work, just to sell the story. Most of these illustrations appeared in popular books and articles.
In the paintings of the time, artists tended to make newly discovered animals look like bits of meat on legs.
It was the same with the dodo - they wanted it to be more spectacular than any bird that came before.
Analysis of the dodo's anatomy shows that it was actually very well-adapted to living in Mauritius.
CT scans of skulls in the Museum's collection show that dodos were relatively intelligent birds, with large brains. They also had large olfactory bulbs, which process smells. Given their inability to fly, it suggests their brain was well-suited to sniffing out food on the ground.
Will we find out more about the lifestyles of the birds?
Unless we find new accounts, how the dodo lived is a mystery.
Perhaps recreating the dodo in the distant future using DNA will be the only way we'll ever know for sure.
We do know more about the whole ecosystem that disappeared alongside them. There were huge numbers of insects that became extinct as well.
For instance, specialist dung beetles in Mauritius fed on dodo dung. They died out at the same time as the dodos. Some wasp species also disappeared when the forest was cut down, along with many bird species.
Lots of people don't consider that when they think about the dodo.
Why was the dodo only found in Mauritius?
We are using DNA sequencing to pin down the dodo's relationship to other birds.
At some point, an ancestral relative of the dodo would have had to fly to get to Mauritius - it then evolved once it got there.
The ancestral pigeon lost its ability to fly because it had no natural predators, there was plenty of food on the ground and flying is very energy-intensive. The species then became perfectly adapted to the Mauritian ecosystem.
Its downfall came when humans arrived on the island and brought a host of competing animals that quickly overran the region.
The dodo had evolved in isolation for millions of years and was unable to adapt to this new change.
Knowing more about the ecological history of Mauritius may reveal new information about the evolutionary history of this fascinating species.
Museum research collections hold close to a million bird specimens, representing more than 95% of the world's known bird species.
See highlights from the collections in an online exhibition, in a collaboration between the Museum and Google Arts & Culture.