Cultural Heritage Spotlight: Aves 3D and the dodo

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In Cultural Heritage Spotlight, we explore cultural institutions who are using 3D technology to bring new life to their collections. Aves 3D, is an online database for 3-D avian skeletal anatomy. They have recently started using Sketchfab to display their models, the most interesting of which is the dodo anatomy project, which they 3D scanned at the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa. Here’s their story…

The dodo (Raphus cucullatus), an extinct, giant flightless pigeon once endemic to the island of Mauritius, may arguably be the most widely known animal species to have gone extinct in human history. However, despite its prominence in popular culture, surprisingly little is known of the anatomy and biology of this animal. The dodo was extinct by 1693, less than one hundred years after the discovery and colonization of Mauritius by the Dutch.

There is not a single complete specimen that exists from 17th century collections, only a few fragments remain; a single desiccated head, a skull, a beak, and a foot. There are also a few genuine but often contradictory contemporary written accounts and drawings. It was not until the discovery of a mid-Holocene fossil concentration-Lagerstätte on Mauritius in 1865, the Mare aux Songes (MAS), that scientists, most notably Sir Richard Owen, were able to reconstruct the dodo’s skeletal anatomy by constructing composite, partially incomplete skeletons. Surprisingly, only few additions to our knowledge of dodo anatomy, paleoecology and extinction have been made since Owen’s 1866 seminal publication, a vast library of semi-popular works on the dodo notwithstanding.

Interactive scan of the Durban Natural Science Museum dodo as it is mounted in the museum, in an unnatural high stance:

The fossil discoveries made by barber and amateur naturalist Etienne Thirioux between 1899 and 1910 include some of the best dodo remains existing today, including the only complete skeleton known from a single bird (housed in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis, Mauritius), and another largely complete skeleton (housed in the Durban Natural Science Museum in South Africa). Sadly, Thirioux’s discoveries never received the attention they deserved. Our anatomical atlas of the Thirioux skeletons, produced using modern techniques such as 3D laser surface scanning, opens a new window into the life of this famous extinct bird.

Interactive scan of digitally remounted Durban dodo skeleton, based on careful anatomical analysis:

Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir number fifteen is the first complete, comprehensive treatise on dodo skeletal anatomy ever produced and only the third monograph on dodo skeletal anatomy; the last one dating from 150 years ago. It represents years of collaborative efforts from a large team of international scientists, with a substantial contribution from undergraduate student researchers in the 3-D laser surface scanning 3-D of the Thirioux skeletons.

Seven things we now know about the dodo

  • Rather than being a large and clumsy bird destined for extinction, the dodo was perfectly adapted to its island home.
  • Humans did not hunt the dodo to extinction; instead, rats and other introduced predators likely had a catastrophic effect on dodo eggs and young.
  • The dodo went extinct in less than 100 years after the arrival of humans on Mauritius.
  • The dodo had kneecaps, just like us.
  • The large, hooked beak of the dodo was used to obtain food and was also a formidable a weapon.
  • The robust limbs not only supported the bird’s weight, but enabled it to maneuver quickly in dense forest.
  • The tiny wings, although useless for flight, were used for balance when moving at speed.

About the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology

Founded in 1940 by thirty-four paleontologists, the Society now has over 2,000 members representing professionals, students, artists, preparators, and others interested in VP. It is organized exclusively for educational and scientific purposes, with the object of advancing the science of vertebrate paleontology.
The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology (JVP) is the leading journal of professional vertebrate paleontology and the flagship publication of the Society. It was founded in 1980 by Dr. Jiri Zidek and publishes contributions on all aspects of vertebrate paleontology. Each year the Society of vertebrate Paleontology also supports the publication of a single major work as a Memoir.

Professor Leon Claessens: “The 3-D atlas represents the culmination of years of work on the exceptional fossils discovered by Etienne Thirioux more than a century ago. We are very pleased that we can finally share his nearly forgotten discoveries with scientists and the public around the globe, and are excited by the new investigations that it will hopefully inspire. There are so many outstanding questions about the dodo that we were not able to tackle before.”
Claessens: “Being able to examine the skeleton of a single, individual dodo, truly allows us to grasp what an actual dodo looked like and how it must have operated in its island environment.”

For more information, feel free to contact Prof. Leon Claessens, via email.

What a fascinating story! If you are part of a cultural institution, get in touch with us at to set up your free business account and share your story.

About the author

Nicolas Guinebretière

Cultural heritage enthusiast

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  • Jordan says:

    Wow! It’s so cool to see these models as if I’m looking at a real life skeleton. I hope study of models like these can help those trying to figure out things about animals from long ago.

  • Ravi Jetshan says:

    This is great !

    I am an artist from Mauritius.

    and i would like to know if the 3D scan file of the dodo is available for download ?

    • Glad you like the post 🙂

      Downloadable models will have a button just below the model title on the model page – if there isn’t a button then the model is currently unavailable for download.

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