Public Release: 

The first 3-D atlas of the extinct dodo

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology

The dodo represents one of the best-known examples of extinction caused by humans, yet we know surprisingly little about this flightless pigeon from a scientific perspective. Now, for the first time since its extinction, a 3-D atlas of the skeletal anatomy of the dodo has been created, based upon two exceptional dodo skeletons that have remained unstudied for over a century. This atlas, published as the fifteenth Memoir of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, represents the culmination of nearly five years of work and thousands of man-hours of digital investigation on the only two associated, near-complete skeletons of the dodo in existence. Published 150 years after Sir Richard Owen's first scientific description of dodo anatomy, based on incomplete, composite skeletons, the new atlas is the first to show accurate relative proportions and to describe several previously unknown bones of the dodo skeleton, including knee caps, ankle and wrist bones. The atlas opens new pathways for the investigation of the paleobiology and evolution of what may arguably be one of the most famous, yet surprisingly poorly known animals that went extinct in recent human history.

The dodo skeletons described in this Memoir were discovered more than a century ago by an amateur naturalist, Etienne Thirioux, who was a barber by trade. Sadly, Thirioux's exceptional discoveries never received the attention they deserved, and have never been described scientifically before. The Thirioux skeleton housed in the Mauritius Institute represents the only known complete dodo skeleton, and the only one comprising the bones of a single individual. The second Thirioux specimen, now housed in the Durban Natural Science Museum, is nearly complete but may have been assembled from the remains of more than one bird. In contrast, all other known dodo skeletons are incomplete and typically made up from the bones of many different individuals. Our anatomical atlas of the Thirioux skeletons, produced using modern techniques such as 3D laser surface scanning, opens a new window into the ecology of this iconic extinct bird.

Background information:

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus), an extinct, giant flightless pigeon once endemic to the island of Mauritius, may arguably be the most widely known animal species to have gone extinct in human history. However, despite its prominence in popular culture, surprisingly little is known of the anatomy and biology of this animal. The dodo was extinct by 1693, less than one hundred years after the discovery and colonization of Mauritius by the Dutch. There is not a single complete specimen that exists from 17th century collections, only a few fragments remain; a single desiccated head, a skull, a beak, and a foot. There are also a few genuine but often contradictory contemporary written accounts and drawings. It was not until the discovery of a mid-Holocene fossil concentration-Lagerstätte on Mauritius in 1865, the Mare aux Songes (MAS), that scientists, most notably Sir Richard Owen, were able to reconstruct the dodo's skeletal anatomy by constructing composite, partially incomplete skeletons. Surprisingly, only few additions to our knowledge of dodo anatomy, paleoecology and extinction have been made since Owen's 1866 seminal publication, a vast library of semi-popular works on the dodo notwithstanding.

The fossil discoveries made by barber and amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux between 1899 and 1910 include some of the best dodo remains existing today, including the only complete skeleton known from a single bird (housed in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius), and another largely complete skeleton (housed in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa). Sadly, Thirioux's discoveries never received the attention they deserved. Our anatomical atlas of the Thirioux skeletons, produced using modern techniques such as 3D laser surface scanning, opens a new window into the life of this famous extinct bird.

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir number fifteen is the first complete, comprehensive treatise on dodo skeletal anatomy ever produced and only the third monograph on dodo skeletal anatomy; the last one dating from 150 years ago. It represents years of collaborative efforts from a large team of international scientists, with a substantial contribution from undergraduate student researchers in the 3-D laser surface scanning 3-D of the Thirioux skeletons.


Details: ANATOMY OF THE DODO (RAPHUS CUCULLATUS L., 1758): AN OSTEOLOGICAL STUDY OF THE THIRIOUX SPECIMENS. Leon P. A. M. Claessens, Hanneke J. M. Meijer, Julian P. Hume, and Kenneth F. Rijsdijk (Editors) Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir 15, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Vol. 35, Supplement to No. 6.

3-D files for press use (these files can be embedded in online news articles):

A number of interactive 3-D dodo skeletons and bones are available to the media, which can be embedded directly into any webpage:

1. Interactive scan of the Durban Natural Science Museum dodo as it is mounted in the museum, in an unnatural high stance:

2. Interactive scan of digitally remounted Durban dodo skeleton, based on careful anatomical analysis:

3. Interactive scan of the first neck vertebra (atlas) of the Durban dodo:

Images and other materials for press use:

A folder with several images of the 3-D scanned dodo skeletons and other supporting documents are made available for download in Dropbox:


Claessens: "The 3-D atlas represents the culmination of years of work on the exceptional fossils discovered by Etienne Thirioux more than a century ago. We are very pleased that we can finally share his nearly forgotten discoveries with scientists and the public around the globe, and are excited by the new investigations that it will hopefully inspire. There are so many outstanding questions about the dodo that we were not able to tackle before."

Claessens: "Being able to examine the skeleton of a single, individual dodo, truly allows us to grasp what an actual dodo looked like and how it must have operated in its island environment."

Rijsdijk: "We performed 10 years of interdisciplinary research to understand what the ecosystem of the dodo looked like, and why many thousands vertebrates died during a natural extreme climatic change event 4200 yr ago, mainly as a result of water scarcity and toxic water consumption. We learned how the dodo and kindred species reacted to natural global warming events. Moreover the research made us aware of the fact that species locked on islands will be more prone to higher environmental stresses due to future global warming than continental species, due to the increasing scarcity of fresh water resources. This is especially the case on small volcanic islands, where fresh water resources are rare and often prone to salinization and poisoning during droughts.

Hume: "Despite a wealth of scientific and popular documentation, the life history of the dodo continues to elude us. More is known about 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.

Meijer: "Compared to living pigeons, the dodo's skull is very different; it is much larger, with a heavy beak, and it has undergone significant changes in shape. It is easy to see why early naturalists had a hard time placing the dodo with pigeons, but its skull is testament to its unique evolutionary trajectory. "

Rupear: "This skeleton is one of the crown jewels of the Natural History Museum of Mauritius."

Allan: "The Durban Natural Science Museum has 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 the research described in this monograph was undertaken by Prof. Claessens and his team "

7 Things we now know about the dodo

  1. Rather than being a large and clumsy bird destined for extinction, the dodo was perfectly adapted to its island home.
  2. Humans did not hunt the dodo to extinction; instead, rats and other introduced predators likely had a catastrophic effect on dodo eggs and young.
  3. The dodo went extinct in less than 100 years after the arrival of humans on Mauritius.
  4. The dodo had kneecaps, just like us.
  5. The large, hooked beak of the dodo was used to obtain food and was also a formidable a weapon.
  6. The robust limbs not only supported the bird's weight, but enabled it to maneuver quickly in dense forest.
  7. The tiny wings, although useless for flight, were used for balance when moving at speed.

Contact information:

Prof. Leon Claessens, Department of Biology, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA, U.S.A., or , Tel: +1 508 793 2594

Dr. Kenneth Rijsdijk, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, The Netherlands,, Tel: +31 6 30095006

Dr. Julian Hume, The Natural History Museum, Tring, U.K.,, Tel: +44 (0)207 942 6158

Dr. Hanneke Meijer, University Museum, Department of Natural History, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway, and, Tel: +47 406 41 559

Mr. Vikash Rupear, Director, Natural History Museum, Mauritius Museums Council, Port Louis, Mauritius. +230 7094040

Mr. David Allan, Curator of Ornithology, Durban Natural Science Museum, Durban, South Africa.


Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has over 2,000 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators, and others interested in VP. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology. Each year the Society of vertebrate Paleontology also supports the publication of a single major work as a Memoir.

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