3D scan of dodo skull

Not so dopey after all, a 3D scan of a dodo skull.

Image: Courtesy of Leon Claessens and Mauritius Museums Council

Written by Julia Cleghorn

3D laser scans of the extinct dodo have helped scientists better understand these famous, flightless birds.

A detailed, digital model

A team of scientists created a detailed, digital 3D model of the dodo by scanning skeletons of the bird with modern laser scanning technology. The skeletons included the world’s only complete dodo skeleton, housed at the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius.

“The scans enable us to reconstruct how the dodo walked, moved and lived to a level of detail that has never been possible before,” says team leader, Leon Claessens. Leon is a vertebrate paleontologist at the college of the Holy Cross in Worcester, the United States.

Dodos once lived on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean about 2000 kilometres from Africa. They were around one metre tall and weighed 10–18 kilograms. Dodos became extinct in the 1600s, in one of the first known cases of human-caused extinction. The birds disappeared only 90 years after humans settled on the island.

The skeleton revealed

Very little is actually known about these birds and details of their biology and behaviour have remained a mystery – until now.

The 3D scans revealed dodo knee and ankle bones that were previously unknown to science. The research team also found that the dodo has only a small keel, the bone that extends from the sternum (breastbone) and is attached to the wing muscles. The dodo’s keel is smaller than the one found in their closest relative, the extinct Rodrigues solitaire, who used its wings in combat. With a small keel, scientists think the dodo didn’t use its wings in this way and was less aggressive.

“All the new information on the dodo is providing scientists with a much clearer picture of this iconic bird”, says Leon. He adds that it “appears to have been a lot less clumsy and cumbersome than portrayed in popular culture, but instead was a successful and dynamic bird adapted to life on Mauritius, which had no place to escape once humans arrived on the island.”

In future work, the scientists plan to use the 3D models to examine exactly how fast a dodo could walk or run, and what it might have been eating with its massive beak.

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