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Book Report, part II: The Dead Guy Interviews with Michael Stusser

From Michael Stusser's terrific new book The Dead Guy Interviews (available here). Oh, and be sure to read his introduction in the post below...

51hxFy7FRnL._SS500_.jpgCharles Darwin's Belated Obituary
February 12, 1809 "“ April 19, 1882

Charles Robert Darwin was a British naturalist with a radical new theory about where we came from. Darwin attended Edinburgh University in 1825 and studied medicine. His attention soon moved to naturalism, and he began learning about evolution and acquired characteristics under Robert Edmund Grant.

It was a trip aboard the HMS Beagle in 1831 at the age of 22 that allowed Darwin to circumnavigate the world and develop hands-on hypotheses while encountering flora, tropical rainforests, fossils and untamed civilizations.

His theory of evolution by natural selection, The Origin of Species, was published in 1859 (twenty years after his voyage) and laid out the argument that the traits of living organisms change from one generation to the next, and include the emergence of new species over time. The theory rocked the world, and changed the way we saw ourselves. The possibility now existed that human beings no longer originated from Divine design, but shared a common ancestry with animals! Men from monkeys! Goodness gracious!

Right or wrong, Darwin's greatest accomplishment was to begin the debate and move the concept of evolution into the realm of serious scientific thought. He died at the age of 73, and was buried at Westminster Abbey, London, a rare honor for a scientist.

THE INTERVIEW

Michael Stusser: How'd you get into the whole field of naturalism?Charles Darwin: Like many youngsters, I used to collect stuff: coins and birds' eggs and rocks and flowers.

MS: I had a baseball card collection. Didn't give me any grand theories on the world, though.

CD: Well then I got into shooting game, which was damn fun. Brilliant, really. Started looking at their anataomy, the innards and all, and that's what got me to thinking, you know.

Much more after the jump!

MS: How'd you wind up in the tropics?

CD: I kissed up to Robert FitzRoy (the Captain of the HMS Beagle) and he let me carry his bags on what was supposed to be a two-year expedition along the coastline of South America.

MS: Sounds a little "Gilligan's Island."

CD: We wound up being out there five years (1831-1836) but I don't think we charted any island called Gilligan, and I took copius notes.

MS: You got incredibly seasick. How'd you deal with that?

CD: I vomited a lot. Just plain hurled overboard. I also spent as much time as I could on land writing in my diary (a 770 page whopper, with 1750 pages of notes, and 12 catalogs of 5436 bones, skins, shells and carcasses). All told, I only spent 18 months aboard that ship.

MS: Does the theory of evolution mean there is no god?

CD: No, I think it's compatible with a belief in god. It's quite possible god made the earth, and let the natural laws of evolution take over. No need to be a complete control freak"¦.

MS: But you are agnostic.

CD: I am - but I'm well aware that the mystery of the beginning of all things is going to remain as such.

MS: This thing about acquired characteristics. Does it mean humans will lose their little toes at some point?

CD: The theory is that, over time, new generations' individual traits become enhanced with repeated use"“

MS: Like opposable thumbs.

CD: Right-o. And that they can be removed if we don't use "˜em. So perhaps your great-great-great grandkids will have one less toe. But I doubt it. More likely, they'll be playing video games with their feet, talking on the phone and driving with their bloody noses!

MS: Let's talk about the theory of "creationism" "“

CD: Bible stories.

MS: Well today they're calling creationism, Intelligent Design. Any thoughts on that label?

CD: I guess I'd have to say that any intelligent designer that made 99.9 percent of every organism he or she designed go extinct, couldn't be all that intelligent.

MS: You really did anger some Bible Thumpers with your theory of evolution.

CD: I can understand that. If you want to keep telling the Adam and Eve story "“ creationism - it's hard to allow for evolution. We either got put on the earth by god as fully formed people, or we evolved from something a little less human.

MS: On a personal note, you found an odd way to decide whether or not to marry.

CD: Oh, the list!

MS: Go on.

CD: Well, you know, I was quite the cataloguer, so I drew up a little cost-benefit analysis on the concept of marriage. Pros and cons, that sort of thing.

MS: How'd that turn out?

CD: The advantages clearly outweighed the disadvantages, and I asked Emma Wedgwood (1808-1896) to marry me.

MS: She was your first cousin. Talk about evolutionary theories"¦.

CD: If that's meant to be a slight, I do not appreciate it.

MS: Gotta clear something out "“ cuz I don't like being compared to an ape. My wife does that. See, if one accepts that humans were descended from animals, it's also true that humans are animals.

CD: Arrrgh.

MS: So, in the end, my great-great relative's some sort of ape?

CD: That's a misconception, dear man, and the reason everyone ran around at one point looking for the "missing link." It's also the reason I waited 20 years to publish my book.

MS: So, am I a monkey or not?

CD: You're not an anthropoid ape. Our relationship to chimps is through a common ancestor, not through direct descent. And we're talking about something that happened ten million years ago, so you can stop looking in that family tree you have there"¦

MS: Ever hear of the Darwin Awards?

CD: No.

MS: You'll like this: They give an award each year to commemorate individuals who protect our gene pool by making the ultimate sacrifice of their own lives.

CD: They kill themselves? Bugger right off?

MS: Yeah, but in an extremely idiotic manner, thereby improving our species' chance of long-term survival. Dolts who eat anthrax or jam forks into light sockets, that kinda thing.

CD: Evolution in action "“ trial and fatal error. I like it. Now put down the chainsaw, sonny.

END OF INTERVIEW

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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science
Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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