Dodo skeleton auctioned off for $430,000. Why does the bird fascinate?

A British auction house sold a composite dodo skeleton to a private collector for £346,300 (about $430,000) on Tuesday. 

Matt Dunham/AP/File
The composite skeleton of a dodo, Raphus cucullatus, from Mauritius is displayed at Summers Place Auctions in Billingshurst, southern England, last Thursday.

A single dodo skeleton probably wouldn’t have fetched much in the 17th century, when the bird was famously driven to extinction by human activity. But on Tuesday, a private collector paid over $400,000 for one.

The specimen had been reconstructed by a long-time dodo enthusiast who, after four decades of bone collecting, realized he had enough to piece together a near-complete skeleton. Only one claw and a skull fragment were missing, and both were reconstructed in anticipation of the sale. Summers Place Auctions in Britain sold the composite skeleton for £346,300, including the buyer’s premium.

Individual dodo bones have been sold throughout the last century, but this was the first nearly complete skeleton to hit the market since 1914. But there’s more to this bird’s hefty price than rarity. Dodos, perhaps the most hapless victims of humanity, occupy a special place in our hearts and minds.

Dutch settlers first arrived at Mauritius, an island about 1,200 miles southeast of Africa, in 1598. There they found a slew of rare animals – most notably, a previously unknown bird that stood three feet tall and couldn’t fly. Many early explorers described the dodo as plump but not exactly pleasant tasting.

The dodo, having been isolated on the island for untold generations with no natural predators, wasn’t accustomed to mortal threats. It made its nests on the ground, and its eggs were easy prey for the dogs and pigs brought in by settlers. It was also unusually trusting, since it had no innate fear of man or any other predator. According to some accounts, one could find all the dodos in an area simply by catching one – the first unlucky bird would begin squawking, and the rest would come willingly to see what was going on.

In the popular science book “A Short History of Nearly Everything,” author Bill Bryson wrote:

The indignities to the poor dodo didn’t end quite there. In 1755, some seventy years after the last dodo’s death, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided that the institution’s stuffed dodo was becoming unpleasantly musty and ordered it tossed on a bonfire. This was a surprising decision as it was by this time the only dodo in existence, stuffed or otherwise. A passing employee, aghast, tried to rescue the bird but could save only its head and part of one limb.

The dodo was officially extinct by 1693, after about a century of human interaction, but the last individual may have died much earlier – the last widely accepted dodo sighting occurred in 1662. The bird has since become a symbol of obsolescence and humanity's destructive tendencies, and was popularized as a character in Lewis Carroll's novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Since most accounts were taken by explorers rather than scientists, little is known about the actual biology and behavior of the dodo. The animal’s weight, diet, and reproductive habits are unclear, and we do not possess a single egg – more can be said about many dinosaurs.

Luckily, we do have a skeleton. At the turn of the 20th century, an amateur collector named Etienne Thirioux discovered a complete specimen on the Mauritian countryside. And unlike the composite sold in Britain, this one belonged to a single bird. The European scientific community, however, was apparently uninterested in the find, and Mr. Thirioux never received full recognition for the discovery.

Until Leon Claessens decided to take a closer look.

Dr. Claessens, a vertebrate paleontologist at the College of the Holy Cross, led a new study of the Thirioux skeleton in 2014. Researchers conducted a 3D laser scan of the specimen in hopes of uncovering new information about the dodo, such as how it might have walked. In doing so, Claessens and colleagues preserved an animal which has been so prone to loss.

“In the dodo, it's almost like you have this reoccurring theme,” Claessens told The Christian Science Monitor’s Claire Felter. “There's information around but it somehow gets lost and forgotten.”

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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