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Rare Dodo Composite Skeleton Goes On Sale

A British auction house is selling one of only a dozen known dodo skeletons, put together by a collector from the bones of several birds

(Summer's Place Auctions)
smithsonian.com

The dodo bird was a blip on the natural history radar. Explorers discovered its home on Mauritius Island in the Indian Ocean in the 1500s. Less than 100 years later, the three-foot-tall flightless bird (Raphus cucullatus) went extinct. The dodo had evolved with no natural predators, so was easily herded onto passing sailing ships for fresh meat. Invasive species tagging along with the sailors, including dogs, cats and rats could also have preyed on the bird's eggs and chicks.

In recent decades, the dodo has become a symbol of humankind’s brutalization of the nature. And between an early assumption that animals don’t entirely die out and the naturally acidic soils of the island, few whole skeletons remain, making a nearly complete composite dodo skeleton quite a find. The remains are expected to sell in the high six figures, reports Harry Cockburn at The Independent.

There are only two nearly complete specimens of the bird that exist today. One was uncovered in the 1860s and resides on display in Port Louis, Mauritius. The second skeleton, “Fred,” is currently on display in London's Natural History Museum. Discovered in 2007, Fred hails from a cave on Mauritius and contains traces of DNA, which scientists have speculated could be used in the future with not-yet-developed technology to revive the species.

The few remaining complete skeletons means that researchers and collectors have had to make due with individual bones or partial skeletons, which they often put together into composite individuals. But even then, there are only about a dozen of these composites in collections and museums around the world.

In the early 2000s, Cockburn reports, one unnamed private naturalist who collected dodo bits in the 1970s and 1980s realized he had enough pieces to cobble together his own composite dodo. In fact, he had 95 percent of the bones needed to make a Frankenstein bird. All that was missing was one set of claws and part of skull, which were cast in resin to complete the skeleton.

Majority of the bones were found in the Mare aux Songes swamp in southeastern Mauritius, from excavations in the 1800s by British school teacher George Clark, the BBC reports. The government of Mauritius has since banned the export or removal of dodo bones.

This newest composite goes under the gavel at Sussex, England’s Summer’s Place Auction House, which specializes in natural history artifacts, during their Evolution Auction in late November.

“The rarity and completeness of this specimen cannot be over emphasized,” Summer’s Place director Rupert van der Werff tells Cockburn. “It provides a unique opportunity for an individual or an institution to own a specimen of this great icon of extinction.” 

The last time a dodo was sold was in 1914, when the Cardiff Museum purchased a composite bird for £350. 

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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