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 the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. Some live dodos did make it to Europe from Mauritius, and the museum thought its specimen might have been one of those birds—but new research, published after Mental Floss's initial interview with Carnall, casts doubt on that theory: After scanning the head, Carnall's colleagues at the museum and Warwick University discovered that the bird had been shot in the back of the head with pellets used to hunt birds in the 1600s. Though the pellets didn't penetrate the dodo's thick skull, "the researchers suggest it was a fatal shooting," Carnall tells Mental Floss in an email. "This new evidence perhaps indicates it wasn’t the remains of a live dodo brought back from Mauritius—unless it was a rather heavy-handed way of putting a dodo down."

The discovery raises questions not just about where the dodo was shot and who killed it but, as Oxford University Museum of Natural History director Paul Smith told The Guardian, about how made it to London with its skin and feathers intact. "If it was [shot] in Mauritius," he said, "there is a really serious question about how it was preserved and transported back, because they didn’t have many of the techniques that we use in the modern day to preserve soft tissues.” As Carnall says, "The mystery continues."

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!”

15 Facts About Nicolaus Copernicus

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iStock

Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicolaus Copernicus fundamentally altered our understanding of science. Born on February 19, 1473, he popularized the heliocentric theory that all planets revolve around the Sun, ushering in the Copernican Revolution. But he was also a lifelong bachelor and member of the clergy who dabbled in medicine and economics. Dive in to these 15 facts about the father of modern astronomy.

1. He came from a family of merchants and clergy.

Some historians believe that Copernicus's name derives from Koperniki, a village in Poland named after tradesmen who mined and sold copper. The astronomer's father, also named Nicolaus Copernicus, was a successful copper merchant in Krakow. His mother, Barbara Watzenrode, came from a powerful family of merchants, and her brother, Lucas Watzenrode the Younger, was an influential Bishop. Two of Copernicus's three older siblings joined the Catholic Church, one as a canon and one as a nun.

2. He was a polyglot.

Growing up, Copernicus likely knew both Polish and German. When Copernicus's father died when he was around 10, Lucas Watzenrode funded his nephew's education and he started learning Latin. In 1491, Copernicus began studying astronomy, math, philosophy, and logic at Krakow University. Five years later, he headed to modern Italy's Bologna University to study law, where he likely picked up some Italian. During his studies, he also read Greek, meaning modern historians think he knew or understood five languages.

3. He wasn't the first person to suggest heliocentrism ...

 A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
A page from the work of Copernicus showing the position of planets in relation to the Sun.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Copernicus is credited with introducing heliocentrism—the idea that the Earth orbits the sun, rather than the sun orbiting the Earth. But several ancient Greek and Islamic scholars from various cultures discussed similar ideas centuries earlier. For example, Aristarchus of Samos, a Greek astronomer who lived in the 200s BCE, theorized that Earth and other planets revolved around the Sun.

4. … but he didn't fully give credit to earlier scholars.

To be clear, Copernicus knew of the work of earlier mathematicians. In a draft of his 1543 manuscript, he even included passages acknowledging the heliocentric ideas of Aristarchus and other ancient Greek astronomers who had written previous versions of the theory. Before submitting the manuscript for publication, though, Copernicus removed this section; theories for the removal range from wanting to present the ideas as wholly his own to simply switching out a Latin quote for a "more erudite" Greek quote and incidentally removing Aristarchus. These extra pages weren't found for another 300-some years.

5. He made contributions to economics.

He's known for math and science, but Copernicus was also quite the economist. In 1517, he wrote a research paper outlining proposals for how the Polish monarch could simplify the country's multiple currencies, especially in regard to the debasement of some of those currencies. His ideas on supply and demand, inflation, and government price-fixing influenced later economic principles such as Gresham's Law (the observation that "bad money drives out good" if they exchange for the same price; for example, if a country has both a paper $1 bill and a $1 coin, the value of the metal in the coin is higher than the value of the cotton and linen in the bill, and thus the bill will be spent as currency more because of that) and the Quantity Theory of Money (the idea that the amount of money in circulation is proportional to how much goods cost).

6. He was a physician (but he didn't have a medical degree).

After studying law, Copernicus traveled to the University of Padua so he could become a medical advisor to his sick uncle, Bishop Watzenrode. Despite spending two years studying medical texts and learning anatomy, Copernicus left medical school without a doctoral degree. Nevertheless, he traveled with his uncle and treated him, as well as other members of the clergy who needed medical attention.

7. He was probably a lifelong bachelor …

An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
An etching of Copernicus, circa 1530.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

As an official in the Catholic Church, Copernicus took a vow of celibacy. He never married and was most likely a virgin (more on that below), but children were not completely absent from his life: After his older sister Katharina died, he became the financial guardian of her five children, his nieces and nephews.

8. … But he may have had an affair with his housekeeper.

Copernicus took a vow of celibacy, but did he keep it? In the late 1530s, the astronomer was in his sixties when Anna Schilling, a woman in her late forties, began living with him. Schilling may have been related to Copernicus—some historians think he was her great uncle—and she worked as his housekeeper for two years. For unknown reasons, the bishop he worked under admonished Copernicus twice for having Schilling live with him, even telling the astronomer to fire her and writing to other church officials about the matter.

9. He attended four universities before earning a degree.

A Polish stamp of Nicolaus Copernicus.
iStock

Copernicus spent over a decade studying at universities across Poland and Italy, but he usually left before he got his degree. Why skip the diplomas? Some historians argue that at the time, it was not unusual for students to leave a university without earning a degree. Moreover, Copernicus didn't need a degree to practice medicine or law, to work as a member of the Catholic Church, or even to take graduate or higher level courses. 

But right before returning to Poland he received a doctorate in canon law from the University of Ferrara. According to Copernicus scholar Edward Rosen this wasn't exactly for scholarly purposes, but that to "show that he had not frittered his time away on wine, women, and song, he had to bring home a diploma. That cost much less in Ferrara than in the other Italian universities where he studied."

10. He was cautious about publicizing his views.

During Copernicus's lifetime, nearly everyone believed in geocentrism—the view that the Earth lies at the center of the universe. Despite that, in the 1510s Copernicus wrote Commentariolus, or "the Little Commentary," a short text that discussed heliocentrism and was circulated amongst his friends. It was soon found circulating further afield, and it's said that Pope Clement VII heard a talk about the new theory and reacted favorably. Later, Cardinal Nicholas Schönberg wrote a letter of encouragement to Copernicus, but Copernicus still hesitated in publishing the full version. Some historians propose that Copernicus was worried about ridicule from the scientific community due to not being able to work out all of the issues heliocentrism created. Others propose that with the rise of the Reformation, the Catholic Church was increasingly cracking down on dissent and Copernicus feared persecution. Either way, he didn't make his complete work public until 1543.

11. He published his work on his deathbed.

An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system.
An antique bookseller displays a rare first edition of Nicolaus Copernicus' revolutionary book on the planet system, at the Tokyo International antique book fair on March 12, 2008. The book, published in 1543 and entitled in Latin "De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI," carries a diagram that shows the Earth and other planets revolving around the Sun, countering the then-prevailing geocentric theory.
YOSHIKAZU TSUNO, AFP/Getty Images

Copernicus finishing writing his book explaining heliocentrism, De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Orbs), in the 1530s. When he was on his deathbed in 1543, he finally decided to publish his controversial work. According to lore, the astronomer awoke from a coma to read pages from his just-printed book shortly before passing away.

12. Galileo was punished for agreeing with Copernicus.

Copernicus dedicated his book to the Pope, but the Catholic Church repudiated it decades after it was published, placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books—pending revision—in 1616. A few years later, the Church ended the ban after editing the text to present Copernicus's views as wholly hypothetical. In 1633, 90 years after Copernicus's death, the Church convicted astronomer Galileo Galilei of "strong suspicion of heresy" for espousing Copernicus's theory of heliocentrism. After a day in prison, Galileo spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

13. There's a chemical element named after him.

Take a look at the periodic table of elements, and you might notice one with the symbol Cn. Called Copernicium, this element with atomic number 112 was named to honor the astronomer in 2010. The element is highly radioactive, with the most stable isotope having a half life of around 30 seconds.

14. Archaeologists finally discovered his remains in 2008.

Frombork Cathedral
iStock

Although Copernicus died in 1543 and was buried somewhere under the cathedral where he worked, archaeologists weren't sure of the exact location of his grave. They performed excavations in and around Frombork Cathedral, finally hitting pay dirt in 2005 by finding part of a skull and skeleton under the church's marble floor, near an altar. It took three years to complete forensic facial reconstruction and compare DNA from the astronomer's skeleton with hair from one of his books, but archeologists were able to confirm that they had found his skeleton. Members of the Polish clergy buried Copernicus for a second time at Frombork in 2010.

15. THERE ARE MONUMENTS TO HIM AROUND THE WORLD.

The Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw, Poland.
iStock

A prominent statue of the astronomer, simply called the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument, stands near the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, Poland. There are also replicas of this monument outside Chicago's Adler Planetarium and Montreal's Planétarium Rio Tinto Alcan. Besides monuments, Copernicus also has a museum and research laboratory—Warsaw's Copernicus Science Centre—dedicated to him.

11 Spectacular Facts About the Moon

Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Stringer, Getty Images

The Moon is Earth’s closest satellite in our solar system, but in many ways, we hardly know our neighbor. Scientists aren’t entirely sure how it formed, and other facts, like its shape (more egg-like than spherical), and the consistency of its surface (dusty but firm), were confirmed only recently. With the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing this year, and NASA preparing to return to the lunar surface for the first time in decades, it’s time to brush up on these facts about the Moon—from colorful names for full moons to the first landing on the dark side of the Moon.

1. The Moon may have formed when a giant object in the solar system hit Earth.

Scientists aren't in total agreement on how the Moon formed, but the most widely accepted theory is the giant impact hypothesis. According to this theory, an object the size of Mars called Theia collided with Earth 4.5 billion years ago when the solar system was still new and chaotic. The impact dislodged matter from Earth’s crust, and the debris attached to whatever was left of Theia through the force of gravity.

This scenario would explain why the Moon is made up of lighter elements found in Earth’s outer layer, but it still leaves some questions unanswered. If the giant impact hypothesis is correct, about 60 percent of the Moon should consist of the impact object. Instead, its composition is almost identical to that of Earth. There are alternative explanations: one posits that the Moon is a space object that got caught in Earth’s orbit, and another one suggests the Moon and Earth formed at the same time, but none is as popular as the giant impact theory.

2. The Moon is the perfect size for solar eclipses.

Moon covering sun during solar eclipse.
Masashi Hara/Getty Images

A lucky set of circumstances make total solar eclipses, as seen from Earth, possible. The Moon is just the right size and distance from our planet to appear as the same size as the Sun in the sky. When the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth, it covers the Sun perfectly with an impressive corona illuminating its edges. If it were any smaller or farther from Earth, it would look like a blot on the Sun during a solar eclipse.

3. A full Moon has different nicknames in different seasons.

A full moon can have many colorful names, but they don’t always describe a special celestial phenomenon. Some are used to refer to a full moon that appears during a certain time of year. A harvest moon, which is the full moon closest to the autumn equinox, is the best-known example, but there are many others, including a wolf moon (first full moon of January), strawberry moon (June), and sturgeon moon (August).

4. It’s the largest moon in the solar system relative to its planet.

Our Moon isn’t the largest in the solar system (that distinction goes to Ganymede, one of Jupiter’s 79 moons), but it is the biggest in relation to the planet it orbits. With a diameter of 2159 miles and a surface area of 14.6 million square miles, the Moon is a little more than one-fourth the size of Earth. The dwarf planet Pluto has an even smaller moon-to-planet ratio. Pluto’s largest moon Charon is nearly the size of its host body, leading some astronomers to refer to the pair as a double-dwarf planet.

5. The Moon is shaped like a lemon.

The Moon may look perfectly round in the night sky, but it’s actually more of an oval shape. It came out wonky billions of years ago when super-hot tidal forces shaped its crust, heating up some areas hotter than others to form a lemon shape rather than a perfect sphere. Gravitational forces from Earth have helped to exaggerate the Moon’s oblong appearance over eons.

6. Scientists thought Moon dust would cause lunar landers to sink.

Lunar module over moon's surface.
NASA/Newsmakers

When preparing to send missions to the Moon, some scientists feared that a thick layer of dust on the body’s surface would cause complications. One of the strongest proponents of the dust theory was Thomas Gold, an astrophysicist at Cornell University. He insisted that the Moon was covered in seas of dust soft and thick enough to swallow a lunar lander. Though the Moon’s surface is dusty, the layer is too thin to cause problems, as the successful landings of the Soviet Luna 9 and the American Surveyor spacecrafts proved in 1966.

7. The Moon is international property.

Astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong may have planted an American flag on the Moon in 1969, but it belongs to the world. Countries like the Soviet Union and the U.S. made sure of that at the height of the space race in 1967 when they signed the Outer Space Treaty, a document declaring that the Moon would be a “global commons” and any resources discovered there would be used for the good of the world overall. In keeping with the spirit of the agreement, NASA shared soil samples taken from the Moon with Soviet scientists upon the Apollo 11 mission's return.

8. Humans have left strange things on the Moon.

Since the first people landed on the Moon in 1969, its surface has been home to more than just dust. Earth artifacts left on the Moon by astronauts include two golf balls, an obscene Andy Warhol doodle, and a message from Queen Elizabeth II. Eugene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander and one of the last people to walk on the Moon, traced his daughter’s initials into the soil when he visited in 1972. Without any wind or weather on the Moon, the letters TDC could remain there forever.

9. The "dark side of the Moon" is the result of synchronous rotation.

Even though the Moon is constantly rotating, only one side of it is visible from Earth. This is because the Moon is locked in synchronous rotation. It takes the Moon just as long to complete one full rotation as it does for the body to orbit around the Earth once, so the same side always faces our planet. This isn’t a coincidence—the Earth’s gravitational forces have gradually pulled the tip of the slightly oblong Moon to point toward the planet, creating something called tidal lock.

In January 2019, the Chinese space agency landed the first lunar probe on the unexplored dark side of the Moon. The Chang'e 4 spacecraft sent the first photographs of a massive impact crater on the dark side to Earth, giving scientists their first glimpse of that unknown region.

10. One astronaut was allergic to the Moon.

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison “Jack” Schmitt discovered the hard way that some people are allergic to Moon matter. Following a survey of a valley in the Sea of Serenity, he climbed back into the crew’s lunar module and tracked in a lot of Moon dust with him. The dust affected him as soon as he removed his spacesuit, triggering red eyes, sneezing fits, and other symptoms that lasted two hours.

11. Humans are going back to the Moon soon.

After completing several manned missions to the Moon, NASA ended the Apollo program in 1972 as budgets tightened and public interest waned. That means most people alive today have never witnessed a manned lunar landing, but now, following a hiatus nearing 50 years, NASA is finally preparing to return to the Moon. The next manned lunar expedition will be ready to launch “no later than the late 2020s,” according to the space agency. One of the goals will be placing a command module, called Gateway, in the Moon’s orbit that astronauts can reuse over multiple missions.

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