Getty
Getty

The Only Place You Can Still See a Dodo

Getty
Getty

The last dodo sighting was reported in 1662, and in 1680, the bird was declared officially extinct. To add insult to injury, our depiction of dodos as strange, awkwardly-shaped birds may not even accurate—the skeletons in most museums are made of bones scavenged from different birds, so it’s difficult to know how close we get with our modern-day representations.

Because the dodo was extinct before cameras were invented, we can only rely on paintings and illustrations to help inform our current understanding of the flightless bird. Today, some researchers believe the traditional depiction of the dodo may have been a product of artistic license, because its skeleton couldn’t have supported such weight. In fact, some of the earliest images of the dodo, dating back to 1598, show a much thinner, almost athletic bird.

Despite all of the misleading information out there, there is one thing about dodos we’re certain we know: what its head looked like. And that’s because the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has the world’s only soft-tissue dodo specimen in existence.

It’s believed the mummified head came from a dodo once displayed in London as a public attraction. When she died, she was stuffed and given to John Tradescant Sr., a naturalist who collected interesting specimens. When Tradescant passed away in 1662, his collection went to his friend Elias Ashmole, who relocated it to the now-famous Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Sadly, the taxidermied dodo was neglected. By 1755, the museum discovered that mites and other bugs had destroyed everything but the dodo’s head and one foot. The rest of the body was burned, lost forever to the annals of history.

The remains are typically only available for research; for example, scientists conducted DNA tests on the foot several years ago and discovered the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon. Unless you’re a credentialed scientist or researcher, the closest you’ll probably be able to get is the replica of the remains on display at the Ashmolean. Still, being in the same building as a real dodo is closer than most people have gotten in the past 350 years.

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Christie's
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Art
A Rare Copy of Audubon's Birds of America Could Break Records at Auction
Christie's
Christie's

American artist and naturalist John James Audubon published The Birds of America in the first half of the 19th century, and his massive “double-elephant” folio of life-size bird illustrations remains one of the most ambitious nature books ever produced. On June 14, a rare edition of the four-book set is hitting the auction block, and it's expected to fetch up to $12 million—more than any Audubon book ever sold.

This edition of The Birds of America was owned by the dukes of Portland from around 1839 to 2012. Because it was stored on the shelves of the family's Nottinghamshire, England estate for nearly a century, the set's prints of watercolor drawings have remained remarkably well-preserved.

In 2012, the copy was auctioned off to philanthropist and businessman Carl W. Knobloch, Jr. for nearly $8 million. Knobloch donated the books to the Knobloch Family Foundation (KFF) before his death in 2016. Now, the KFF is sending the books to auction once again. This time, all proceeds of the sale will go to nature conservation.

Set of red leather-bound books.

New York City auction house Christie's describes the set in a listing as "among the finest copies in private hands of this icon of American art, and the finest color-plate book ever produced." Each of the 435 double-elephant folio pages measures 39.5 inches by 26.5 inches, the largest sheets Audubon could get his hands on at the time, and they feature 1037 birds from 500 species. The books are bound in red Moroccan leather with gold detailing on the borders and spines. The four-volume set also comes with the Ornithological Biography, a collection of five books describing the specimens in The Birds of America and their habits.

Christie's estimates the set will sell for $8 million to $12 million when the final bid is placed later this month. To date, the most expensive copy of The Birds of America was a first edition acquired from Sotheby's in London for $11.5 million. That sale also broke the record for the most expensive printed book ever sold at auction, a record held until 2013.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American bird.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American birds.

Illustration of American birds.

All images courtesy of Christie's

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Jana Mueller
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Animals
Ravens Can Figure Out When Someone Is Spying on Them
Jana Mueller
Jana Mueller

Corvids, the family of birds that includes crows and ravens, are canny beasts. They've been known to exercise self-control, count, hold grudges, and more. Now, new research suggests they possess at least a rudimentary Theory of Mind—the ability to attribute mental states to others.

A study in Nature finds that ravens can tell when someone else can see them, guarding their food when a peephole to their cache is open. While previous research suggested that birds might have an awareness of other animals' mental states, the results have been inconclusive. The Nature study is evidence that corvids can do more than just track other birds' gaze; they may understand the concept of "seeing."

Vienna-based researchers set up two rooms separated by windows that could be closed with covers. These covers had peepholes in them that could also be opened or closed. First, the 10 ravens were each allowed to cache food, while other birds were in the next room and the windows were open or closed. Then, they were trained to look through the peepholes to find food in the other room, so that they knew that the holes could be used to see through the window covers. Afterwards, each of the ravens was again presented with food with one of the two peepholes open. The adjacent observation room didn't have any birds in it, but the researchers played the sounds of another raven recorded during one of the previous trials.

When the birds heard the sounds of another raven in the next room, and the peephole was open, the birds behaved as if they knew they were being watched—they hid their cache of food quickly and didn't add more food to it as often, as if they knew that it might be compromised. However, they behaved normally when the peephole was closed.

This suggests that ravens don't just track their competitors' gaze to know when they’re being watched, but can infer from past experience when they can be seen.

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