Readers familiar with the “Thursday Next” series of comic novels written by UK author Jasper Fford might recall that one of the conceits therein is that a plan to bring dodos back from extinction results in a plague of the birds.
In real life, of course, plans to revive the dodo (Raphus cucullatus) – which went extinct in its homeland of Mauritius in the seventeenth century – remain, at best, wishful thinking.
Whether such a thing is technically possible is doubtful, and whether it is ethical is the subject of much debate. However, at least one 2017 study suggests doing so might be a good idea because the dodo, as a “flagship” species, could be useful in generating a whole wad of cash to fund other research.
A team of researchers led by Delphine Angst from the University of Cape Town in South Africa studied the microscopic structure of bones from 22 dodos – variously recovered from a swamp in Mauritius, and collections held in museums in London and France.
Thin sections were taken from each of the bones, and were then repeatedly washed in ethanol and acetone to remove any last vestiges of flesh. The cleaned specimens were embedded in epoxy resin and examined through a petrographic microscope.
Several of the bone sections were determined to have come from juvenile birds, with the remainder from adults. Comparing them led Angst and her team to some significant insights.
Dodos, they determined, likely hatched around August and then underwent a period of rapid growth for several months. This was possibly an evolutionary adaptation to climate, ensuring the chicks were large enough and heavy enough to survive the annual cyclone season.
After this initial growth spurt, things slowed down considerably, with the birds taking a long time to attain full skeletal maturity.
The evidence also suggests that soon after breeding, adult dodos went into moult. The timing is at least partially supported by eye-witness accounts from sailors. In total, these testimonies present a confusing picture, containing significantly different descriptions of the bird. This would be explained if some of the sailors saw (and quite possibly ate) dodos during their moulting phase.
The scientists add that their work represents the only histological examination of dodo bones ever done, and “provides an unprecedented insight into the life history of this iconic bird.”
Andrew Masterson is a former editor of Cosmos.
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