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!”

10 Facts About Rosacea

iStock
iStock

Rosacea, a skin condition characterized by redness and swelling, is incredibly common: A recent study found that an estimated 300 million people worldwide suffer from it. Here’s what you need to know about the condition.

1. IT HAS A LONG HISTORY.

According to the National Rosacea Society (NRS), rosacea was first described in the 14th century by a French surgeon named Dr. Guy de Chauliac; he called it goutterose (“pink drop” in French) or couperose and noted that it was characterized by “red lesions in the face, particularly on the nose and cheeks.”

2. SCIENTISTS AREN’T SURE WHAT CAUSES IT ...

But they have some theories. According to the NRS, “most experts believe it is a vascular disorder that seems to be related to flushing.” Scientists also think that because rosacea seems to run in families, it might be genetic. Other things—like mites that live on the skin, an intestinal bug called H pylori (common in those who have rosacea), and a reaction to a bacterium called bacillus oleronius—could also play a role in causing the condition. One 2015 study suggested an increased risk among smokers.

3. … BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE MORE LIKELY TO HAVE IT THAN OTHERS.

Though people of all ages and skin tones can get rosacea, fair skinned people between the ages of 30 and 50 with Celtic and Scandinavian ancestry and a family history of rosacea are more likely to develop the condition. Women are more likely to have rosacea than men, though their symptoms tend to be less severe than men’s. But men are more likely to suffer from a rare rosacea side effect known as rhinophyma, which causes the skin of the nose to thicken and become bulbous. It’s commonly—and mistakenly—associated with heavy drinking, but what exactly causes rhinophyma is unclear. According to the NRS, “The swelling that often follows a flushing reaction may, over time, lead to the growth of excess tissue (fibroplasia) around the nose as plasma proteins accumulate when the damaged lymphatic system fails to clear them. Leakage of a substance called blood coagulation factor XIII is also believed to be a potential cause of excess tissue.” Thankfully, those who have rhinophyma have options available for treatment, including surgery and laser therapy.

4. THERE ARE FOUR SUBTYPES.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), rosacea “often begins with a tendency to blush or flush more easily than other people.” All rosacea involves redness of some kind (typically on the nose, cheeks, chin, and forehead), but other symptoms allow the condition to be divided into four subtypes: Erythematotelangiectatic rosacea is characterized by persistent redness and sometimes visible blood vessels; Papulopustular rosacea involves swelling and “acne-like breakouts”; Phymatous rosacea is characterized by thick and bumpy skin; and Ocular rosacea involves red eyes (that sometimes burn and itch, or feel like they have sand in them [PDF]), swollen eyelids, and stye-like growths.

5. IT’S NOT THE SAME AS ACNE.

Though rosacea was once considered a form of acne—"acne rosacea" first appeared in medical literature in 1814—today doctors know it’s a different condition altogether. Though there are similarities (like acne, some forms of rosacea are characterized by small, pus-filled bumps) there are key differences: Acne involves blackheads, typically occurs in the teen years, and can appear all over the body; rosacea is a chronic condition that occurs mainly on the face and the chest and typically shows up later in life.

6. YOU CAN FIND IT IN CLASSIC ART AND LITERATURE.

Both Chaucer and Shakespeare likely made references to rosacea. Domenico Ghirlandaio’s 1490 painting An Old Man and His Grandson seems to depict rhinophyma, and some believe that Rembrandt’s 1659 self-portrait shows that the artist had rosacea and rhinophyma.

7. IT MAY BE TRIGGERED BY CERTAIN FOODS AND ACTIVITIES.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) [PDF], people report that everything from the weather to what you eat can cause rosacea to flare up: Heat, cold, sunlight, and wind, strenuous exercise, spicy food, alcohol consumption, menopause, stress, and use of steroids on the skin are all triggers.

8. THERE ARE A NUMBER OF MYTHS ABOUT ROSACEA.

No, it’s not caused by caffeine and coffee (flare ups, if they occur, are due to the heat of your coffee) or by heavy drinking (though alcohol does exacerbate the condition). Rosacea isn’t caused by poor hygiene, and it’s not contagious.

9. THERE ARE SOME PRETTY FAMOUS PEOPLE WITH ROSACEA.

Sophia Bush, Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Chenoweth, Bill Clinton, and Sam Smith all have rosacea. Diana, Princess of Wales had it, too. W.C. Fields had rosacea and rhinophyma, and Andy Warhol may also have suffered from those conditions.

10. IT CAN’T BE CURED—BUT IT CAN BE TREATED.

The NRS reports that “nearly 90 percent of rosacea patients [surveyed by NRS] said this condition had lowered their self-confidence and self-esteem, and 41 percent reported it had caused them to avoid public contact or cancel social engagements.” Dr. Uwe Gieler, a professor of dermatology at the Justus-Liebig-University in Giessen, Germany, and one of the authors of the report Rosacea: Beyond the Visible, said in a press release that "People with rosacea are often judged on their appearance, which impacts them greatly in daily life. If their rosacea is severe, the symptoms are likely to be more significant also, from itching and burning to a permanently red central facial area. However, even people with less severe rosacea report a significant impact on quality of life."

Which makes it all the more unfortunate that there’s not a cure for the condition. Thankfully, though, there are treatments available.

There are no tests that will diagnose rosacea; that’s up to your doctor, who will examine your medical history and go over your symptoms. Doctors advise that those with rosacea pay attention to what triggers flare-ups, which will help them figure out how to treat the condition. Antibiotics might be prescribed; laser therapy might be used. Anyone with rosacea should always wear sunscreen [PDF] and treat their skin very, very gently—don't scrub or exfoliate it. The AAD recommends moisturizing daily and avoiding products that contain things like urea, alcohol, and glycolic and lactic acids.

Endeavour, Captain Cook's Lost Ship, Might Have Been Found—Solving a Centuries-Old Mystery

Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

The exact location of the final resting place of Captain James Cook’s HMS Endeavour, which was sunk off the coast of Rhode Island 200 years ago, is considered one of maritime history’s greatest mysteries. Now, after a 25-year effort to pinpoint its remains among 13 sunken vessels, The Age reports that the Endeavour might have finally been identified.

British explorer James Cook left England on the Endeavour in 1768 headed for the South Pacific. He and his crew became the first European expedition to map the entire coast of New Zealand, and later, the first to reach Australia’s east coast. Along the way, they collected hundreds of previously unknown plant species, became the first Europeans to record a kangaroo sighting, and gathered evidence that would help disprove the existence of the long-speculated southern continent, Terra Australis, that hypothetically extended all the way up to the equator.

A replica of the 18th-century 'Endeavour' in the ocean
A replica of the Endeavour in 2004
Dennis4trigger, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

After that three-year journey, Cook and his crew returned to England. Though Cook became a legend, the Endeavour didn’t receive the star treatment. The British Royal Navy used it to ferry supplies to and from the Falkland Islands for several years before selling it to a private buyer. The ship was renamed the Lord Sandwich, and was eventually put into service transporting German mercenaries to fight on Britain's side in the American Revolution.

That’s how the ship ended up in Rhode Island, where it was stationed as part of the Royal Navy’s fleet in Newport Harbor and used as a prison ship for captured American soldiers. When French reinforcements came to assist American revolutionaries in Rhode Island, the British decided to sink their ships rather than allow them to be captured, creating a blockade out of scuttled vessels to block the French from getting into the harbor. They sank 12 transport vessels and set another on fire. Over the ensuing years, locals and French forces took equipment from the wrecks, but it’s never been entirely clear what happened to the remains.

The Rhode Island Marine Archaeology Project began to try to map and identify those remains starting in the early 1990s, and eventually figured out that the Lord Sandwich was the same ship as the HMS Endeavour. As the ship played a vital role in Australian history, the Australian National Maritime Museum then got involved with the project.

The two organizations have announced that they have lowered the number of potential wrecks that could be the Endeavour from 14 to five—and perhaps down to just one—by inspecting the area and measuring the wrecks against historic information about Cook's vessel. The researchers think the final resting place of the ship is located off the coast of Goat Island in Narragansett Bay, but to be absolutely certain, they’ll have to excavate the remains of the ship and examine its timbers. The researchers hope to have that work done by the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival in Australia’s Botany Bay—and his claiming of Australia as British territory—in 2020.

And there may be a battle over the remains. While the ship is considered a vital artifact of Australian history, the state of Rhode Island claimed ownership of all of the sunken ships in 1999, and they are overseen by the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission.

[h/t The Age]

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