The skeleton of an extinction icon is heading for auction in West Sussex, England.


The specimen is actually a composite skeleton 30 years in the making, made from bits and pieces of various dodos. It's about 95% complete, missing just one set of claws and part of the skull. 

The rare item is the first dodo skeleton to come up for sale in nearly a century, and the Summers Place Auction House expects it to fetch somewhere in the six figures. 

"We got a telephone call out of the blue from somebody saying they had the skeleton of a dodo and we didn't really quite believe it," auctions director Rupert van der Werff told Sky News. "We thought all the remains that are out there were known. It turned out that [the owner] amassed it over quite a few decades and it is just extraordinary."

Only one skeleton made up of bones from a single dodo exists today, and it's on display in Port Louis, Mauritius. The rest, just like this latest specimen, are composites. According to BBC News, most of the bones that make up the auction item were originally recovered back in the nineteenth century from the Mare aux Songes swamp in south-eastern Mauritius. Such exports have since been banned by the Mauritian government.

Dutch sailors first sighted the awkward-looking, flightless dodos back in 1598, and the animals were wiped off their native island less than a century later. But while popular narratives paint the birds as stupid and ill-fatedly unafraid of humans, newer research suggests competition for limited resources on the island was ultimately to blame for their demise. As for their bird brains, a recent study argues they were smarter than we think.

The last widely accepted date for a dodo sighting is 1662, with some believing one may have been seen in 1693. 

Dodo Auction Skeleton 2016 08 28
Image via Summers Place Auction House

"It's a very difficult thing to put a value on," says van der Werf of the auction specimen. "It's such an iconic species, it's a really good example and probably one of the best four or five there is."

Private natural history auctions are controversial in the world of palaeontology – and for good reason. Private collectors are not required to present their specimens for research, and many journals now require that published works include only public fossils. Without collection data on the various pieces, a composite dodo skeleton wouldn't be very useful in that context, but many experts say auctions like this one are part of a troublesome trend.  

"I'm a bit more on the Indiana Jones side of things, with 'That belongs in a museum!'," says palaeontologist Jon Tennant. "Certainly the public cannot experience [a private specimen], which is a shame for public engagement with science. But it's very complicated. There are different local, regional, and national laws, and ethical considerations too."

Palaeontologist and science writer Brian Switek, who's highlighted some of the serious problems associated with commercial collecting before, takes a similar view. "It makes me sad that this bird is going up for auction," he says. "Even if all the bones were collected legally, is it ethical for them to be ripped from their original context with no additional information? ... Extinct animals are not stamps or baseball cards. They can tell us so much about the world we all share, but we need to demand higher standards for collecting and data collection if they're ever going to share their stories."

Can't afford the real deal anyway? We'll leave you with Stephen Fry and our favourite dodo animation: 


Top header image: Christian Guthier, Flickr