There’s life in this old bird yet
Name: The Oxford dodo
Species: Dodo (Raphus cucullatus)
Claim to fame: World’s best-preserved dodo specimen
Go visit: Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Oxford Henry Nicholls@WayOfThePanda
Malgosia Novak-Kemp lifts the lid and there in the shoe-box-like container, nestled on a bed of tissue paper, are the grizzled remains of a remarkable old bird, a specimen whose story can be traced back to the early 17th century.
Novak-Kemp is collections manager at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History and she is showing me the Oxford dodo, the best-preserved specimen of this iconic bird left on Earth. It is too precious to be on permanent display (there is a replica in the gallery) and its storage site is switched every couple of weeks as a precaution against theft.
In 1638, the English writer and theologian Sir Hamon L’Estrange was taking a turn through the backstreets of London when he spotted an intriguing sign hanging outside a shop. Onto a piece of cloth, the proprietor had drawn a “strange fowle”. L’Estrange dug in his pockets for a penny, paid up and entered. There at the back of the shop was a living, breathing dodo, “a great fowle somewhat bigger than the largest Turky Cock … but stouter and thicker and of a more erect shape”.
His testimony remains the only irrefutable evidence that anyone managed to take a dodo from its native island Mauritius and bring it alive to Europe. “The keeper called it a Dodo,” L’Estrange wrote, “and in the ende of a chymney in the chamber there lay a heape of large pebble stones.” He learned that the dodo would eat these stones – “some as bigg as nutmegs” – as an aid to digestion.
It is not known for sure when this ornithological curiosity finally turned up its toes, but there is a strong suspicion that its limp corpse ended up in the hoarding grasp of John Tradescant, gardener to King Charles II and an avid collector of rare and interesting curiosities. “Dodar from the island of Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big,” reads one of the entries in the catalogue of his collection published in 1656.
Upon Tradescant’s death in 1662, his curiosities passed to his friend Elias Ashmole, who used them as the basis for the world-famous Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There the dodo remained on display for almost a century.
Then, in 1755, there was a fire. According to popular belief, a heroic curator managed to rescue the head and a foot of the dodo from the conflagration. But historians, with their predilection for debunking a good story, now reckon that the specimen was in such disrepair it had to be disposed of and the safest way to do that was to incinerate. It is only because the skull and a foot were so bony with so little soft tissue and the merest feathery remnants that they were spared.
An illustration from Strickland and Melville’s The Dodo and its Kindred, showing the right side of the skull (above) and a reconstruction.
It would be almost another 100 years before the Oxford dodo took its next significant outing. The 1848 classic The Dodo and its Kindred, by zoologists Hugh Strickland and Alexander Melville, contains a stunning plate of the skull of the Oxford dodo above a reconstruction of what the bird might have looked like in life and another of its metatarsus and toes. This publication, which brought the dodo back to life in the public consciousness, is likely to have inspired the appearance of a model dodo at the Great Exhibition in 1851.
In 1860, the Oxford dodo’s remains crossed town from the Ashmolean to the newly built Oxford University Museum of Natural History, inspiring Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) to feature the creature in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book, first published in 1865, was illustrated by the cartoonist John Tenniel and it is his portrayal of the dodo – copied from a 17th century Dutch painting – that really propelled this species into the limelight.
John Tenniel’s engraving of the dodo from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Carroll was not the only one affected by the Oxford dodo. Hilaire Belloc, for instance, included a dodo-based poem in his Bad Child’s Book of Beasts published shortly after his graduation from Oxford. It includes a series of fabulous illustrations by one of Belloc’s Oxford chums Basil Temple Blackwood.
The Dodo used to walk around,
And take the sun and air.
The sun yet warms his native ground –
The Dodo is not there!
The voice which used to squawk and squeak
Is now for ever dumb –
Yet may you see his bones and beak
All in the Mu-se-um.
Basil Temple Blackwood’s illustration of the Oxford dodo in Hilaire Belloc’s Bad Child’s Book of Beasts. ‘Yet may you see his bones and beak, All in the Mu-se-um’
In 2002, the Oxford dodo made itself known again, when geneticists managed to extract fragments of DNA from its bony remains. By comparing these genetic sequences with those from a bunch of closely related pigeons and doves, Beth Shapiro and colleagues figured that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon and the two species diverged more than 30m years ago.