Dodo Done

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Woman holding a brown Dodo skeleton

Dr Clem Fisher and the Dodo skeleton

I’m not a great pigeon fancier but I do have a soft spot for the biggest of this breed – the long-dead Dodo. Depending on what you believe, the flightless bird waddled or strutted into history around 1693 when it was wiped off the face of the earth.

There is a very rare skeleton of a Dodo temporarily on display at World Museum. It is going to be featured on Radio Merseyside at 8.20 am on Monday 25 January 2010 as part of the BBC’s exciting series, A History of the World. Our picture shows curator of vertebrate zoology Dr Clem Fisher, who was recently interviewed for the show, with the incomplete composite skeleton. It has been in our collection since 1866 and has not been on display for at least 40 years.

Clem will tell listeners how specimens continue to reveal secrets: “The skeleton was made up from various Dodo bones found in a bog and is quite complete. However, we recently discovered that the foot bones had been skilfully carved from wood – probably in Victorian times.”

I have discovered that there is quite a controversy over what the Dodo actually looked like when alive. Live ones were brought to Europe from its only home, the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. These captive specimens grew fat and waddled about their cages. One was painted by Jan Savery and his depiction led to the popular perception of the creature as a bird buffoon.

We now know the reality was rather different and that Dodos were more likely lithe birds that strutted around. Being flightless, they must have been pretty agile to find food in competition with other species. This interpretation is backed up by the 1991 rediscovery of long-lost drawings showing a slightly plump but alert bird. 

Then there is the theory about how Dodos became extinct. The popular story is that they were killed by the crews of passing ships. The Dutch, however, thought the Dodo tasted loathsome. I suppose it would depend how hungry you were. Some people said Dodo meat was tough but good to eat. There were other birds and animals on Mauritius to tempt the palate. Looking at the World Museum skeleton, I am reminded of the turkey after Christmas dinner so perhaps seafarers had the same idea. Turkeys were discovered in North America by the Spanish more than 400 years ago during the time Dodos were being hunted.

The name is probably of Dutch origin, shortened from dodaars meaning knot-arse, referring to the knot or tuft of feathers making up its tail. The Dodo had a relation on the neighbouring island of Réunion called the Solitaire. Sometimes known as the White Dodo, it became extinct some time after 1705.