Scientists said Friday they found a major cache of bones and likely complete skeletons of the long-extinct Dodo bird, which could help them learn more about the lost creature's physique and habits.
The find is significant because no complete skeleton of a single Dodo bird has ever been retrieved from a controlled archaeological site in Mauritius. The last known stuffed bird was destroyed in a 1755 fire at a museum in Oxford, England, leaving only partial skeletons and drawings of the bird to go on.
The bird was native to Mauritius when no humans lived there but its numbers rapidly dwindled after the arrival of Portuguese and Dutch sailors in the 1500s. The last recorded sighting of a live bird was in 1663.
The international team of researchers found the bones on a sugar cane plantation on Mauritius, located in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Madagascar.
They presented their findings at the National Museum of Natural History in the Dutch city of Leiden Friday.
"We have found 700 bones including bones from 20 Dodo birds and chicks but we believe there are many more at the site," said Kenneth Rijsdijk, a Dutch geologist from the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, who led the dig.
DNA material from other Dodos exists, but Rijsdijk said more and better samples could be retrieved from the latest find, estimated to be 2,000 to 3,000-years-old.
Retrieving DNA means that the Dodo can be better placed in relation to other species. But recreating a live animal from its DNA remains in the realm of science fiction, Rijsdijk said.
The Dodo's name comes from a Portuguese word for "fool," so named because the bird showed no fear of humans and couldn't fly, making it easy prey for the colonists. The Dutch called it the Walgvogel, or "nasty bird" because it tasted so bad.
Modern scientists understand the Dodo more favorably. They believe the bird didn't fear humans because it had no natural predators on Mauritius and had lost the ability to fly because it was so large: adults grew to around a meter (yard) high and weighed around 20 kilograms, or about 50 pounds, considerably bigger than a pelican.
The Dodo was made famous by a political satire in the book Alice in Wonderland, in which a Dodo leads a "caucus race" in which the rules are hazy, contestants run in circles, and everybody wins a prize.
The Dodo soon became the best-known example of an extinct animal, giving rise to the expression "dead as a dodo."
But it was just one of many animals driven to extinction, including half the native bird species of Mauritius.
The find also included remains of extinct birds, giant tortoises, trees and plants.