News Bite: Dodos and the evolution of bird brains

DodoTopIf you wander into the basement of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, and wander into the fossil collections, you will find a vast array of different dinosaurs dating back over 200 million years. However, just a few feet away from the oldest dinosaurs you will find several drawers filled with the bones of Raphus cucullatus: the dodo. These are not fossilized; the dodo has only been gone from the Earth for four hundred years, after all. Still, placing the dodo among all of the other extinct birds, alongside the dinosaurs seems perfectly appropriate to me.

Dodo painting by Michael Hanson
Modern reconstruction of Raphus cucullatus by Yale ornithologist Michael Hanson. This painting incorporates new anatomical data about the shape of the body and the color of the feathers

As I mention in the episode, a dodo skeleton is not a common thing in museum collections. There are only a few skeletons that are nearly complete, most of which are preserved in European collections. Only one set of bones at the Oxford Museum of Natural History preserves the soft parts in a mummified state, and only of the head and the foot. As a matter of fact, we likely know less about the dodo than we do about some dinosaur species that have been extinct for more than sixty six million-years longer than the dodo. Moreover, scientists today are applying the same techniques and technologies used to understand the lives of fossil animals to answer questions about the life of the dodo.

The Oxford dodo head
The preserved skin of a dodo specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History.

Eugenia Gold is a scientist uniquely qualified to answer questions about this extinct species. She has engaged in a number of anatomical science projects, examining topics as varied as changes in shape during the life of crocodylians, the anatomy of the brain in the tyrannosaurid dinosaur Alioramus, and the evolution of bird brains! She’s got brains on the brain (I’m sure no one has ever made that joke). And she uses the most modern of CT scanning techniques to get inside the heads of her study animals. Those same techniques she used to rebuild the skulls and brains of tyrannosaurs are applied to the skulls of dodos.

The science of dodo-ology has undergone a small renaissance recently, with studies on the skeletal anatomy, life style, and the history of dodo contact with cultures around the world. To read more about recent discoveries about this absent bird, check out the article links at the bottom of the page!

Dr. Gold’s study of the dodo brain can be found here. Follow her on Twitter @DrNeurosaurus and check out her new bilingual paleontology blog Dr. Neurosaurus! One little correction: Dr. Gold was involved in the description of the Alioramus tyrannosaurid skull, but Dr. Gabe Bever rebuilt the skull using CT data.

For a bit more on the story of the extinction of the dodo and the evolution of life on islands, check out David Quammen’s classic popular book, The Song of the Dodo. I also recommend the beautiful coffee table book Extinct Birds, by Erroll Fuller. It’s got amazing paintings, but some very sad stories about recent extinctions of birds on Earth.

Recent studies on dodo anatomy include an investigation into the mass of the living animal by C. A. Brassey and colleagues; studies of the historical records charting the transport of dodos around the world; and J. C. Parrish’s comprehensive study of the historical and bone records of the dodo and it’s closest relative, a bird called the Rodrigues Solitaire.

Filed under: anatomy, bird, brain, dinosaur, dodo, extinction, fossil, island, scanning

One thought on News Bite: Dodos and the evolution of bird brains

  • Quick comment from Dr Gold herself, correcting an error: “One small correction- I actually didn’t make the brain for Alioramus, Gabe Bever did. I looked at its paranasal sinuses.”

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