Once upon a time, there was a Dodo.

Painting of the Dodo by Roelandt Savery executed in ca. 1626 and held at the NHMUK, London.

Painting of the Dodo by Roelandt Savery executed in ca. 1626 and held at the NHMUK, London.

The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus Linnaeus, 1758) a giant, flightless pigeon endemic to the Mascarene island of Mauritius, became extinct just three centuries ago. As one of the earliest species to be identified as extinct, the Dodo gained tremendous celebrity throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It was first used as the prime example of a species wiped out by recent human activity in the Penny Magazine (Broderip 1833; reprinted in the Penny Cyclopaedia), where the author wrote that: “The agency of man, in limiting the increase of the inferior animals, and in extirpating certain races, was perhaps never more strikingly exemplified than in the case of the Dodo. That a species so remarkable in its character should become extinct, within little more than two centuries, so that the fact of its existence at all has been doubted, is a circumstance which may well excite our surprise, and lead us to a consideration of similar changes which are still going on from the same cause.”

Much greater public awareness of the Dodo’s demise followed publication of the monograph The Dodo and Its Kindred (Strickland and Melville 1848). Shortly after, a life-size reconstruction of a Dodo was displayed in 1851 at the Great Exhibition in London and later exhibited at the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Even Lewis Carroll featured the Dodo as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and firmly established the bird as a popular figure in Victorian culture.

The Oxford dodo head (From Wikimedia Commons)

The Oxford dodo head (From Wikimedia Commons)

In 1828, John Duncan, curator at the Ashmolean Museum, described a desiccated dodo head and foot held at the museum. In 1842, John Theodore Reinhardt, a Danish professor, examined a second dodo skull at the Copenhagen Museum and concluded that it was a giant pigeon. Prior to Reinhardt’s proposal, the Dodo had variously been considered a diminutive ostrich, a rail, or even a kind of vulture.

The publication of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ coincided with a spectacular discovery of subfossil dodo bones from a marsh called the Mare aux Songes in Mauritius in 1865.  George Clark, discoverer of the fossil site, sent consignments of bones initially to Richard Owen  and subsequently to Alfred Newton. A year later, Owen described the bones in Memoir on the Dodo. He reconstructed the bird using the most famous of the contemporary Dodo paintings, one by the Dutch artist Roelandt Savery. Three years later, Owen rectified his mistake by reconstructing the bird in a natural more upright position.

Amateur naturalist and barber Louis Etienne Thirioux (1846–1917),  collected two of the most important dodo skeletons known to science around the turn of the 19th century. Thirioux’s dodos were discovered in the foothills and valleys of Le Pouce and surrounding mountains, but their exact provenance has not been recorded.

Owen’s (1866) original reconstruction of the dodo.

Owen’s (1866) original reconstruction of the dodo.

In 1896, Hilaire Belloc wrote a beautiful poem about the dodo in his Bad Child’s Book of Beasts.

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.


Kenneth F. Rijsdijk, Julian P. Hume, Perry G. B. De Louw, Hanneke J. M. Meijer, Anwar Janoo, Erik J. De Boer, Lorna Steel, John De Vos, Laura G. Van Der Sluis, Henry Hooghiemstra, F. B. Vincent Florens, Cláudia Baider, Tamara J. J. Vernimmen, Pieter Baas, Anneke H. Van Heteren, Vikash Rupear, Gorah Beebeejaun, Alan Grihault, J. (Hans) Van Der Plicht, Marijke Besselink, Juliën K. Lubeek, Max Jansen, Sjoerd J. Kluiving, Hege Hollund, Beth Shapiro, Matthew Collins, Mike Buckley, Ranjith M. Jayasena, Nicolas Porch, Rene Floore, Frans Bunnik, Andrew Biedlingmaier, Jennifer Leavitt, Gregory Monfette, Anna Kimelblatt, Adrienne Randall, Pieter Floore & Leon P. A. M. Claessens (2015) A review of the dodo and its ecosystem: insights from a vertebrate concentration Lagerstätte in Mauritius, Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 35: sup1, 3-20, DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2015.1113803

Turvey, S. T.; Cheke, A. S. (2008). “Dead as a dodo: The fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon”. Historical Biology 20 (2): 149–163

3 thoughts on “Once upon a time, there was a Dodo.

  1. Pingback: Once upon a time, there was a Dodo. | Letters from Gondwana. | First Night History

  2. Pingback: Humanamente naturales | Todo vale - 21/06/2016 - dronte

  3. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 2, Vol. #46 | Whewell's Ghost

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