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 Wireless Chargers Designed to Make Life Easier

La Lucia/Moshi
La Lucia/Moshi

While our smart devices and gadgets are necessary in our everyday life, the worst part is the clumsy collection of cords and chargers that go along with them. Thankfully, there are more streamlined ways to keep your phone, AirPods, Apple Watch, and other electronics powered-up. Check out these 10 wireless chargers that are designed to make your life convenient and connected.

1. Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad; $40

Otto Q Wireless Fast Charging Pad
Moshi

Touted as one of the world's fastest chargers, this wireless model from Moshi is ideal for anyone looking to power-up their phone or AirPods in a hurry. It sports a soft, cushioned design and features a proprietary Q-coil module that allows it to charge through a case as thick as 5mm.

Buy it: Mental Floss Shop

2. Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station; $57

Gotek Wireless Charging Music Station
Rego Tech

Consolidate your bedside table with this clock, Bluetooth 5.0 speaker, and wireless charger, all in one. It comes with a built-in radio and glossy LED display with three levels of brightness to suit your style.

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3. BentoStack PowerHub 5000; $100 (37 percent off)

BentoStack PowerHub 5000
Function101

This compact Apple accessory organizer will wirelessly charge, port, and store your device accessories in one compact hub. It stacks to look neat and keep you from losing another small piece of equipment.

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4. Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger; $85

Porto Q 5K Portable Battery with Built-in Wireless Charger
Moshi

This wireless charger doubles as a portable battery, so when your charge dies, the backup battery will double your device’s life. Your friends will love being able to borrow a charge, too, with the easy, non-slip hook-up.

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5. 4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger; $41 (31 percent off)

4-in-1 Versatile Wireless Charger
La Lucia

Put all of those tangled cords to rest with this single, temperature-controlled charging stand that can work on four devices at once. It even has a built-in safeguard to protect against overcharging.

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6. GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger; $20 (31 percent off)

GRAVITIS™ Wireless Car Charger
Origaudio

If you need to charge your phone while also using it as a GPS, this wireless device hooks right into the car’s air vent for safe visibility. Your device will be fully charged within two to three hours, making it perfect for road trips.

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7. Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad; $35 (30 percent off)

Futura X Wireless 15W Fast Charging Pad
Bezalel

This incredibly thin, tiny charger is designed for anyone looking to declutter their desk or nightstand. Using a USB-C cord for a power source, this wireless charger features a built-in cooling system and is simple to set up—once plugged in, you just have to rest your phone on top to get it working.

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8. Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain; $20 (59 percent off)

Apple Watch Wireless Charger Keychain
Go Gadgets

This Apple Watch charger is all about convenience on the go. Simply attach the charger to your keys or backpack and wrap your Apple Watch around its magnetic center ring. The whole thing is small enough to be easily carried with you wherever you're traveling, whether you're commuting or out on a day trip.

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9. Wireless Charger with 30W Power Delivery & 18W Fast Charger Ports; $55 (38 percent off)

Wireless Charger from TechSmarter
TechSmarter

Fuel up to three devices at once, including a laptop, with this single unit. It can wirelessly charge or hook up to USB and USB-C to consolidate your charging station.

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10. FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table; $150 (24 percent off)

FurniQi Bamboo Wireless Charging Side Table
FoneSalesman

This bamboo table is actually a wireless charger—all you have to do is set your device down on the designated charging spot and you're good to go. Easy to construct and completely discreet, this is a novel way to charge your device while entertaining guests or just enjoying your morning coffee.

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The Meteoric Rise—and Tragic Fall—of NASA's Skylab

NASA // Public Domain
NASA // Public Domain

On May 14, 1973, NASA launched Skylab, the first American space station. It fell to earth six years later, burning up in the atmosphere on July 11, 1979.

Skylab itself was a heavily modified third stage of a Saturn V rocket—the same system we used to send Apollo missions to the moon. The station was huge, measuring more than 80 feet in length, with a 21-foot diameter. During launch, Skylab 1 suffered major damage to its solar array, which delayed the launch of the Skylab 2 crew (originally intended to launch the day after Skylab itself reached orbit). The Skylab 2 mission was modified to include repair work to the solar power system and installation of a solar heat shield, as the original one was lost during launch. The Skylab 2 crew launched on May 25, 1973.

The Skylab missions resulted in new information about long-term space habitation (including an awesome space shower). The first crew spent 28 days in space; the second crew more than doubled that at 59 days; and the final crew (Skylab 4) spent 84 days up there. That last record was not broken by an American for two decades. Skylab also focused on solar science, Earth science, and microgravity experiments.

Skylab was something of a bridge between the Apollo and Space Shuttle programs. Indeed, Skylab was supposed to be serviced (and its orbit boosted) by the first Shuttle, but it wasn't ready in time. Skylab's orbit decayed, eventually causing it to disintegrate and fall to Earth over the Indian Ocean on July 11, 1979. Chunks of the station made a bit of a fireworks display streaking through the atmosphere, and ultimately littered a swath of Australia. No injuries were reported from the falling debris, though media coverage of the reentry was intense.

Here's a short NASA documentary on Skylab, explaining the story of the station. Have a look:

If you'd like to relive the launch, here's live TV coverage from that day:

And if you'd like to learn more about its crash, and what it taught NASA moving forward, watch this:

This story has been updated for 2020.