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New Secrets of the Dodo Revealed

Nov 07, 2014 01:07 PM EST

The dodo has long been the butt of terribly nerdy jokes. That's because, as far as prehistoric animals go, it was an incredible failure. Flightless, awkwardly plump, and very extinct, the dodo drew the short end of the evolutionary stick several times over.

It was discovered by the Dutch in 1598, and less than a century later it was gone.

Researchers have suggested that the dodo even lasted as long as it did simply because it was isolated on an island, with little competition for resources. When pigs and rats were introduced to the island of Mauritius by early human sailors crossing the Indian Ocean, the dodo didn't stand a chance.

However, despite the fact that this three-foot-tall ball of bird is the iconic face of extinction, little is actually known about it. That's because "the dodo's extinction happened at a time when people didn't understand the concept of extinction - science as we know it was still in its infancy," researcher Leon Claessens, a vertebrate paleontologist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., told Live Science. "This meant that nobody tried to make a collection of the bird or study it in detail." (Scroll to read on...)

Even now, what we know about the bird comes from individual bones, which are fit together to make approximations of the creature's size and shape.

However, the discovery of a complete dodo skeleton - bones all from the same individual - has allowed modern 3D laser scanning technology to open a new window into the life of this famous bird.

"Being able to examine the skeleton of a single, individual dodo, which is not made up from as many individual birds as there are bones... truly allows us to appreciate the way the dodo looked and see how tall or rotund it really was," Juilan Hume, of the United Kingdom's Natural History Museum, said in a statement.

These scans verified a theory that the dodo, despite its large skull and robust beak, was not a relative of vultures or other birds of prey, but instead is a distant relative of modern day pigeons.

The scans also reveal that the dodo was likely caught making an evolutionary shift in size when humans showed up to its island.

"The history of the dodo provides an important case study of the effects of human disturbance of the ecosystem," said Claessens. "There is still much to learn that can inform modern conservation efforts for today's endangered animals."

The results are due to be published in The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and were recently presented at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Estrel, Berlin. 

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