Last week, at Christie’s auction house in London, an anonymous buyer paid almost $625,000 for the skeleton of a dodo bird. More precisely, the buyer purchased a set of fossilized bones belonging to at least two different birds, dug up and assembled into a skeleton by collectors. The last such assemblage sold in 2016 for about $430,000. Before that, no dodo skeleton of any kind had been offered for public sale for nearly a century.
Even for a species that, famously, has been extinct for more than 350 years, dodo remains are scarce. The University of Oxford has a dodo head—the only specimen that includes any soft tissue—and a skeletal dodo foot. There’s a dodo skull in Copenhagen, and a dodo beak in Prague. The British Museum used to have its own dodo foot, but lost it around 1900.
“The dodo remains that were collected while the bird was still alive would fit in a shoebox,” says Leon Claessens, a paleontologist at the University of Maastricht, in the Netherlands.
The rest of what remains of the dodo, in public and private hands, is fossilized, made up of bones that were buried in caves and bogs for thousands of years. Today, the most complete dodo specimens on public display are two fossilized skeletons, one on the dodo’s native island of Mauritius and the other in Durban, South Africa. And both were excavated during a craze for dodo memorabilia that occurred centuries after the species went extinct.
In the late 16th century, when Dutch sailors returned home from Mauritius with stories about a large, ground-nesting bird, the dodo was just one of thousands of unfamiliar species that travelers were describing and displaying to European audiences. “There were all sorts of wonderful animals coming into Europe—you had the first giraffe, the first cassowary—so the dodo was just another interesting animal,” says Julian Hume, a British artist and paleontologist.
As dodo numbers plummeted, their eggs gobbled up and their habitat destroyed by the rats, cats, dogs, and pigs that disembarked from arriving ships, nobody in European scientific circles suspected that the species was in trouble. At the time, most people in Europe and elsewhere still believed that all species were divine creations, and that extinction of any kind was impossible. Not until the late 1700s did scientists realize that extinction was possible, and not until the mid-1800s did they accept that it could be caused by humans. By that time, the dodo was so long gone that it was only hazily remembered—as a kind of vulture, or albatross, or even a small ostrich. Some people suspected that it was more like a mermaid, in that it had never existed at all.
The dodo was rescued from mythical status by two Victorian researchers, Hugh Strickland and Alexander Melville, who collected surviving firsthand accounts of the species in an 1848 book called The Dodo and Its Kindred. The book brought public attention to the dodo, inspiring Lewis Carroll to include a plump fictional dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and prompting amateur and professional scientists to begin searching, belatedly, for real dodo remains.
Perhaps inevitably, the search got competitive, and the competition got nasty. In 1865, after years of looking, a schoolteacher named George Clark discovered a jumble of fossilized bones, including dodo bones, in a Mauritian marsh called the Mare aux Songes. Richard Owen, an anatomist at the British Museum, was so eager to get ahold of Clark’s finds that he laid claim to bones meant for his colleague Alfred Newton—knowing that Newton, whom Owen had recently recommended for an academic appointment, would be in no position to protest. Newton’s brother Edward, a colonial administrator in Mauritius, was outraged: “I must say that I feel very indignant about the conduct of Owen in the case of Clark’s Dodos,” he wrote to Alfred. “He has shown himself to be a very mean-minded illiberal sort.”
While scientists squabbled over the bones from the Mare aux Songes, Louis Etienne Thirioux, a Mauritian barber and avid amateur naturalist, was quietly looking elsewhere. Thirioux, who reportedly entertained customers with his “genius for conversation,” nonetheless spent his Sundays and holidays alone, reading scientific literature and hiking through the mountain range that bisects the island. In the late 1800s, he started excavating fossilized bones from caves and river valleys, eventually assembling the two dodo skeletons now displayed in Mauritius and Durban. (Almost all the bones in the skeleton in Mauritius are thought to be from a single individual; the skeleton in Durban, like all other dodo skeletons known today, is a composite.)
Claessens speculates that Thirioux traded or shared some of the individual dodo bones he found with Paul Carié, a Frenchman who owned the land surrounding the Mare aux Songes in the early 1900s. Using dodo bones from his marsh and some loaners from Thirioux, Carié assembled a number of piecemeal skeletons. He sold or donated all but one—which remained in his family until it was sold in London last Friday.
The dodo is better understood than it used to be. From its few remains, scientists have learned that it was neither vulture nor ostrich but a member of the pigeon family; that it was probably svelter and faster than early descriptions suggested; and that despite the dodo’s reputation as a hapless victim, its anatomy and behavior were beautifully adapted to its environment.
But the species is gone, and the dodo’s story will always be as fragmentary as its remains. “Every time you think you’re getting close, your hands almost touching it, it just seems to move away, so that you can’t quite work out what this bird was doing,” Hume says ruefully. “It’s always a little out of your grasp.”