Apr 16

Extinct Animal: Dead as the Dodo

Literary critic and humourist Willy Cuppy once said, ‘The dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for.’ And, indeed, many people view the dodo as being an unfortunate evolutionary mistake. It was fat, flightless and painfully stupid. Wasn’t it?


Painting: Frederick William Frohawk (1905)

Not quite. Admittedly, it was flightless – nothing more than a huge grounded pigeon with a thick, hooked beak – but that was only because it didn’t need to fly. Its only home was the remote island of Mauritius, which, for most of its existence, was completely devoid of land-dwelling predators. This meant the dodo could afford to lose its power of flight and its wings, over time, withered away to stumps.

However, it was probably never the obese birds seen in historical drawings – they were almost certainly overfed captive individuals. As for its stupidity… well, that’s up for debate. Certainly, that’s what the early visitors to Mauritius thought, for the name ‘dodo’ probably comes either from the Portuguese word doido, which means ‘fool’, or the Dutch word dodoor, meaning ‘dolt’, neither of which are especially complimentary towards the bird. It is likely that the bird was only deemed stupid because it couldn’t fly to escape from danger.


Photo: BazzaDaRambler
Oxford University Museum of Natural History Dodo skeleton cast and model

The native Malay people did not the hunt the dodo for its flesh because it was apparently tough and had a foul taste, but they did hunt it to make religious headdresses from its feathers. When Europeans reached the island, they brought with them a variety of animals, such as cats, dogs and rats, which plundered the dodos’ ground nests. The humans themselves, meanwhile, began deforesting the island. First discovered by western explorers in 1598, the dodo had become completely extinct by 1662, less than a hundred years later.

Despite the disappearance of the dodo, few people took notice and even fewer people cared. In fact, the director of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford decided in 1755 to simply throw their decaying specimen of a dodo into a bonfire, not realising at the time that it was the last preserved specimen of a dodo in existence. A passing employee tried to rescue the burning bird, but could only salvage its head and part of a limb.


Photo: Ed Schipul
Plaster cast of the dried Oxford head and London foot of the dodo

By the nineteenth century, stories of such an odd bird seemed too strange to be true and many people actually regarded the dodo as a myth. Then, in 1865, Mauritius schoolmaster George Clark unearthed some dodo bones from a swamp, proving that it had indeed once existed. That very same year, the dodo was featured as a character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and interest in the extinct bird was rekindled.

Thanks largely to the popularity of the book, the dodo has become extremely well-known to the public. Although it was by no means the first animal to have been wiped out by humans, or indeed the last, its very name has nonetheless become synonymous with extinction itself.

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