As dead as a Dodo
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
Last week I was in London and refreshingly got see a lot of the sights - normally I go there to do something specific - so this time it was great to do all the touristy things and I can say there was no sign of Brexit dampening the number of visitors. The highlight of the trip was a quick look at the very busy Natural history museum located on the South Kensington tube stop. The museum was founded in 1881 and is home to more than 350 scientists and a collection of 80 million specimens from the natural world and hosts a broad range of exhibitions about Earth and life on Earth. With only an hour and half to quickly look at the permanent exhibits, the highlight for me was the Dodo exhibit, a potent reminder to all to take better care of the habitats we share. The infamous Dodo is now extinct along with other lesser know bird species that over the last 500 years have suffered the same fate at an alarmingly high rate.
The Dodo was a flightless bird weighing in at around 23 kilos, something like a turkey, that was native to the tiny island nation of Mauritius (see my Mauritius blog from January 2017) and adjacent islands such as Reunion Island recently in the news due to pieces of Flight MH370 being washed up on its shores. So how on earth did this bird whose numbers were in abundance become extinct?
When I was at school I was told that the Dodo became extinct because Dutch sailors in 1598 traveling with Jacob van Neck (one of the first people to ever describe the Dodo) hunted and ate the bird to extinction after finding it incredibly easy to catch it because it had absolutely no fear of humans. However, Portuguese sailors are also said to have seen the bird, decades before this in 1507 and named the birds doudo, meaning stupid. So what’s the accurate story?
True, it has been documented that after sailors landed and settled on the island in 1598, the Dodo’s population rapidly declined and historical sources confirm that the Dodo was hunted by sailors in need of food after long sea journeys despite reports of the Dodo having an unpleasant taste. Certainly the bird did not taste like chicken leading some writers to claim that the birds were only eaten by necessity, with one recorded cooking recipe suggesting it be cooked with mangoes, fruit native to Mauritius, to mask the awful taste. Perhaps a more accurate reason as stated in a paper released by the Oxford University of Natural History is that the introduction of animals into a foreign ecosystem, combined with humans hunting and eating them, saw the delicate balance the Dodo had enjoyed for so long destroyed. The sailors brought with them animals them such as pigs, dogs and rats and it was these that developed a taste for Dodo eggs, and so as written in one of the foremost texts on the bird and its demise Lost Land of the Dodo: The Ecological History of Mauritius, Réunion and Rodrigues, the last, accepted confirmed sighting of a live dodo was in 1662.
Visually, what did the Dodo look like? The model I saw last week in the Natural history museum is a composite of various specimens put together by people literally tasked with documenting and storing animal remains. In reconstructions of recently found bones, it would suggest that the dodo was actually a lot sleeker and agile than the artists of the past gave it credit for. Images of thinner Dodos are known to exist such as those sketched by Jacob Van Neck who was one of the first to draw them. Descriptions of size and plumage varied with the observer, and period illustrations, often rare and not particularly skilled, showed what could be interpreted as assorted different birds. It’s estimated that 11 live birds and an unknown quantity of dead specimens were exported from Mauritius to Europe, where they fascinated illustrators and artists like Jan Savery with dozens of paintings created in the era immediately after the Dodo’s discovery. It could be said that these artists took too great a license illustrating the bird in lots of fanciful ways, creating them from live models to end up looking like unnaturally fat animals, while others were created based on stories and hearsay from other artists’ drawings, or based on skeletal or the taxidermy remains of dead birds.
Lewis Carroll brought to life the Dodo through his character of the Dodo in Alice in Wonderland (1865) and it was the popularity of this book that led to the widespread use of the phrase as dead as a dodo. John Tenniel interpreted the scene featuring the Dodo in his illustrations for the book, and like Carroll turned to the collection at Oxford for inspiration.
The dodo is frequently cited as one of the most well-known examples of human induced extinction, serving as a reminder and symbol firmly entrenched in the European mind of a cautionary tale about human intervention in natural matters.
Dodo (Alice’s adventures in Wonderland Wikipedia