Cache of dodo bones unearthed

Associated Press
Published December 25, 2005

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - Scientists said they likely have found a complete skeleton of the long-extinct dodo bird.

The dodo was native to Mauritius when no humans lived there, but its numbers rapidly dwindled after the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch sailors in the 1500s. The last recorded sighting of a live bird was in 1663.

An international team of researchers said they found the bones of the bird on a plantation on Mauritius off the east coast of Madagascar, and presented their findings at the National Museum of Natural History in the Dutch city of Leiden on Friday.

No complete skeleton of a single dodo bird had ever been retrieved before from an archaeological site in Mauritius. "We have found 700 bones, including bones from 20 dodo birds and chicks, but we believe there are many more at the site," said Kenneth Rijsdijk, a Dutch geologist who led the dig.

DNA material from other dodos exists, but Rijsdijk said better samples could be retrieved from the latest find, estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000 years old.

Retrieving DNA means the dodo can be better placed in relation to other species. The dodo's name comes from a Portuguese word for "fool," because the bird showed no fear of humans and couldn't fly, making it easy prey. The Dutch called it the Walgvogel, or "nasty bird" because it tasted so bad.

Modern scientists think the bird did not fear humans because it had no natural predators on Mauritius and had lost the ability to fly because it was so large: adults grew to around 3 feet and weighed around 50 pounds.

The dodo has become a byword for an extinct animal, giving rise to the expression "dead as a dodo." But it was just one of many animals driven to extinction, including half the native bird species of Mauritius.