Dodo skeleton comes to life

There is just one known near-complete skeleton of a dodo from the bones of a single specimen in the world, and it comes up for auction this Tuesday, in West Sussex in the UK.

The composite skeleton, put together over a period of two decades by an as-yet unnamed private collector, is expected to fetch £500,000 or more when it’s put for bid by Summers Place Auctions, one of the world’s leading auctioneers of natural history items, based in Sussex.

The skeleton is unique because it’s believed to be the only one from a single animal. Around the world, there are no more than a dozen composite skeletons from different animals, including the one on display at London’s Natural History Museum.

The dodo was first discovered by the outside world in 1598, on the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, about 1,200 miles (2,000 kms) southwest of the African continent. Just 70 years after its discovery by Dutch sailors, the dodo was extinct. The dodo was unique to Mauritius; no other remnant populations were found.

Over time, the dodo has come to represent mass extinctions.

The dodo was exploited for centuries after its disappearance. The vast majority of bones were collected in the 19th century, only to vanish in many cases, without being catalogued or stored. 

The government in Mauritius has since banned the export of dodo bones, so it’s unlikely that another composite skeleton will be assembled or put up for auction again.

Composite skeletons aside, the dodo’s appearance is limited to drawings, paintings and written accounts dating back to the 17th century.

The dodo stood about three feet, three inches tall (roughly one metre) and weighed as much as 47 pounds (22 kgs). Because it was flightless, it made easy pickings for hungry sailors and meat traders. It was also vulnerable to habitat destruction, and was decimated by invasive species.

The dodo holds a special place in conservation circles because it’s the first animal that drew attention to the previously unrecognized problems of humans’ roles in the disappearance of entire species.

The dodo would live on in popular culture, though, most famously in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in which a dodo encourages Alice and her companions to compete in a so-called “caucus” swimming race.

The race contestants could swim in any direction or pattern they like, and start and finish where they want, so that everyone wins. Carroll later said the caucus race was an intended as a satire on the political caucus system, which everyone talks and nothing is accomplished.

Not unlike a conservation conference.