Dodo egg claim disputed in South Africa

Efforts to confirm claims about a dodo egg, perhaps the last in the world, are complicated by a dispute over who owns the egg.

The dodo has been extinct since the 17th century. A dodo skeleton found in 2007 revealed that it was about three feet tall, weighed around 44 pounds, and was probably speedy. It evolved on the once predator-free island of Mauritius.

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An ownership dispute is hampering tests to determine whether a dodo egg held at a South African museum really is the last of its kind in the world. The family of a distinguished naturalist says it owns the intact eggshell while the East London Museum says it is the rightful custodian.

The egg was donated to the museum by former curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer 65 years ago, after she was given it by an aunt. Her aunt had been given the egg by a family friend who sailed regularly to the dodo’s home of Mauritius, where he said it was found.

Dr. Courtenay-Latimer was no stranger to extinct animals. In 1938 she identified a fish caught off South Africa as a prehistoric coelacanth (SEEL-uh-canth), which experts thought had been extinct for millions of years.

Bigger than an ostrich egg, the dodo egg was long ago drained via a tiny hole. The museum wants to break off a small bit, no bigger that a pen nib, says curator Mcebisi Magadla, and send it either to the University of Cape Town or Oxford. “Those universities will be able to tell its true veracity by testing the DNA of the eggshell,” he says.

Does he think the egg is a dodo’s? Mr. Magadla is diplomatic: “I respect Dr. Court-enay-Latimer’s assertion that it is a dodo egg. After all, she identified the coelacanth and no one disputed that, despite everyone’s thinking it was extinct.”

But her family is worried about the procedure and claim they haven’t been told enough about the methodology and expense.

For now, the disputed egg remains in a safe at the museum, with a replica on display.

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