Dodo whodunit: Feathered creature died from shotgun blast to head

Researchers in the U.K. have discovered that the dodo housed in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History for hundreds of years died a violent death.

'You are looking at a snapshot of its violent death,' says U.K. researcher

New research in the U.K. found that the famous Oxford dodo died after being shot in the back of the head. Native to the island of Mauritius, the dodo was first discovered by sailors in 1598, and was extinct less than a century later. (Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

The last of the dodos left this planet somewhere in the mid to late 17th century, brought to extinction by early European explorers and invasive species of animals introduced to its native island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.

Extinct but not forgotten.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the U.K. houses the last remains of a dodo in the world. It's one of the museum's most precious treasures because most dodo remains today are skeletons reconstructed from bones found on Mauritius.

The "Oxford dodo," on the other hand, includes the mummified bird's skull and foot and even skin and soft tissue, making it the only specimen that retains any viable DNA. It's invaluable to research, says the university's Prof. Paul Smith.

Now, using 21st-century forensic scanning technology, Smith and other U.K. researchers have uncovered new evidence that shows the world-famous Oxford dodo had a violent death.

"We noticed these serious metallic high-density particles embedded inside the specimen," researcher Mark Williams, of the University of Warwick's Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), told CBC News.

The skull of the Oxford dodo, housed at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the U.K. (Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Williams is the first to scan the remains of the dodo using a high-resolution CT scan and software that created a 3D replica of the dodo's skull.

This technology allowed the researchers to see inside the specimen for the first time without actually damaging the centuries-old remains.

"When we were first asked to scan the dodo, we were hoping to study its anatomy and shed some new light on how it existed," Williams said. "In our wildest dreams we never expected to find what we did."

What they found was that the metallic particles were ammunition.

'Brutal way to go'

Williams said his team looked back at the data "and realized the pattern of these lead shots is in the back of the dodo's head. So clearly, when you look at it, he was shot in the back of the head with a shotgun."

He called it a "pretty brutal way to go."

"These birds were hunted to extinction. Their habitat was destroyed. When you look at the specimen like this one and see between 20 and 30 lead pellets embedded right in the skull, you are looking at a snapshot of its violent death," he said.

This is a scan image of the skull of the Oxford dodo. Researchers at the University of Warwick found particles in the skull, later identified as lead shot pellets. (WMG, University of Warwick)

Researchers had always assumed the nearly 400-year-old specimen had died of natural causes, its remains then transferred to the U.K. museum as an exhibit. Now they say they have proof the Oxford dodo was hunted down and killed.

Smith said it was a "really great surprise." 

"The specimen that we thought we knew so well had lots ... of lead pellets embedded with the skin, embedded within the bone."

"Having small lead pellets to shoot game fowl only started at almost the same time as the bird became extinct," Williams said. "We could be looking at the first examples of lead shots ever used to hunt game birds."

Williams said the forensic work isn't done. He's hoping to do a chemical analysis of the lead pellets.

"Using those analyses, we may be able to trace which particular ore field the lead came from, and therefore what country it was mined in, and potentially what country the shot was made in so that we could then determine who killed the dodo," says Smith.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto is the only museum in Canada that has a dodo skeletal display. It's been part of the museum's collection since 1938 and on display for the past 10 years. (Brian Boyle/Royal Ontario Museum)

His number one suspect? "I think there's a good chance this bird was either shot in its habitat or maybe even kept captive on a ship and shot for food."

Paleontologist Kevin Seymour says the murderer could have been anyone.

"It's kind of cool to know more information about that individual [dodo], but it isn't surprising that lots of people went to Mauritius and ate these animals," says Seymour, assistant curator of the Department of Natural History at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto — the only museum in Canada with a dodo skeletal display.

"They were basically eaten to extinction. And that this one was shot isn't too surprising to me, that people went there and hunted them for food." 

But Williams says he's dismayed by this latest discovery about the demise of the dodo, a flightless bird labelled — some say unfairly — as clumsy and dull-witted.

"Shock and sadness, really," says Williams. "This animal was extinct 60 years after it was discovered. In the blink of an eye, it was gone."


Kas Roussy

Former CBC reporter

Kas Roussy was a senior reporter with the Health unit at CBC News. In her more than 30 years with CBC, Kas’s reporting took her around the globe to cover news in countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan, Chile, Haiti and China, where she was the bureau producer.