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The remains of the dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the famous Jan Savery painting of 1651 are among the greatest treasures of the Museum.

The Oxford Dodo

What of the history of this remarkable acquisition – a flightless bird that once grazed freely on the islands of the Indian Ocean
The painting in the Museum was presented to the Ashmolean in 1813 by W.H. Darby. It dates from 1651, and is attributed to the Flemish artist, Jan Savery.

"The popular image of a fat and stupid creature comes from the celebrated painting of the dodo by Jan Savery (1589-1654)."

By Peter Holthusen


The dodo is the most famous of all the creatures to have become extinct in historical times. The remains of the dodo at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and the famous Jan Savery painting of 1651 are among the greatest treasures of the Museum.

The Mascarene Islands – Mauritius, La Réunion and Rodrigues – were once home to an extraordinary range of birds, bats and reptiles. Evolving in the absence of mammalian predators or competitors, amazing forms such as giant tortoises, burrowing boas, flightless rails and ibises, huge parrots, and, of course, the dodo dominated the land. Undiscovered until the 16th century, the islands experienced dramatic ecological changes in the years following colonization by European settlers. The birds and tortoises were slaughtered indiscriminately while introduced pigs, cats, rats and monkeys destroyed their eggs, and the once-extensive forests were logged.

The landscape of Mauritius - In earlier times when the island was covered in verdant mountain forests and the streams ran free of man’s pollution, an estimated 26 species of birds once lived here. Of these the dodo is the best known.


The dodos first contact with Europeans came in 1598, when a Dutch expedition lead by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck landed on an island, thick with dense forests of bamboo and ebony, off the east coast of Africa. The island was named Mauritius by the adventurous and artistic Admiral – the first man to draw the extraordinary and unique flightless bird, now universally known as the dodo.

Dodos were hunted mercilessly during the short time in which Europeans came into contact with them and for a period of upwards of half a century they doubtless proved to be a very useful source of fresh meat for travellers in the Indian Ocean. Whether or not they were good to eat is something of a moot point, however. While many fell prey to hungry seafarers they may not always have been eaten with great relish. Sir Thomas Herbert (1634) mentions that the dodo: "Is reputed more for wonder than for food, greasie stomaches may seeke after them, but to the delicate they are offensive and of no nourishment".

Van Neck, the dodo's first describer, was even more insulting than Herbert and it was he who called the bird 'walghvogel' - meaning disgusting bird, apparently because the longer they were cooked the tougher and less palatable became their flesh; he noted, however, that the belly and breast had a pleasant enough flavour.

A now-familiar icon of extinction, the dodo was gone within 60 years of the colonization of its home, Mauritius, and over the next 150 years many other native vertebrates on the Mascarene Islands followed suit. The bird with a name whose original meaning is obscure to science has now become virtually a synonym for extinction. The name is said to derive from the Dutch word 'dodoor' meaning sluggard. As far as extinct creatures are concerned, only dinosaurs can match the dodo for celebrity; and not only does the peculiar name stick in the mind, the bird's extraordinary appearance - made vividly familiar even to children through John Tenniel's remarkable illustrations for Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' – leaves an indelible impression.

Not many years after the premature extinction of the species, studying the dodo in greater depth was to become much more of a possibility thanks largely to the endeavours of a Mr. George Clarke, Master of the Government School at Mahébourg, on the island of Mauritius. Clarke put together a large collection of dodo bones that he uncovered at his own expense from a swamp known as Mare aux Songes, the first of his discoveries being publicized after 1865. From the finds have been assembled some complete or almost complete skeletons and it is this material that provides the basis for all dodo research of a strictly anatomical nature.

Earlier remains of the dodo became a curiosity, and some were brought to Europe by wealthy collectors. One of these birds was exhibited in the illustrious museum established by John Tradescant, naturalist and gardener to Charles II, in Lambeth, south London. The stuffed creature together with the rest of Tradescant's idiosyncratic collection of natural history specimens passed in 1659 from this museum to that of Elias Ashmole , and so came to Oxford. One of Ashmole's statutes, number 8, reads: "That as any particular grows old and perishing the keeper may remove it into one of the closets or other repository; and some other to be substituted".

In 1755 the dodo was examined; found wanting in certain respects and, presumably under statute 8, was ordered out for destruction. The instruction appears to have been obeyed but not quite to the letter; someone cut off the head and right foot, thus preserving something of Tradescant's dodo for posterity. Regarding, "some other to be substituted" – none could be. By 1755 the living dodo was long gone from Mauritius and no other stuffed example can be proved to have outlasted the Tradescant/Ashmole specimen. Aside from what remains of this bird (items that have now passed from the Ashmolean Museum to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), the only tangible relics that have come down to us of human encounters with living Mauritius dodos are a few scraps of skin and bone in some European museums – a left foot in The Natural History Museum in London, parts of a head in the Zoological Museum, University of Copenhagen and some head fragments in Prague. The 'stuffed dodos' that can often be seen in museums throughout the world are all models, constructed from the feathers of chickens or other birds; their heads and feet are usually made of plaster or other suitable model-makers material.

The first written account of a living Mauritius dodo is undeniably that of Jacob Cornelius van Neck, published in Holland in 1601; the last is perhaps one given by Benjamin Harry some 80 years later in a manuscript kept today at 'The Natural History Museum' in London. In the years between the writing of these two accounts, other visitors to Mauritius penned their descriptions of meetings with dodos and from these, together with a sizeable collection of 17th century paintings and drawings, can be formed a fairly good impression of the birds in life.

At first naturalists seem to have thought of the bird as a species of short-legged ostrich, but gradually other associations were considered – among them gallinaceous birds, albatrosses and plovers ! By the late 1830s, the word 'vulture' was in vogue, supported by the eminent opinion of the distinguished English anatomist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892). However, Hugh Strickland – co-author of an early book on didine birds, 'The Dodo and its Kindred', published in 1848, examined the available evidence, looked at the surviving paintings and concluded that dodos were perhaps giant doves, members of the pigeon order. The first specimens of the remarkable tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculas strigirostris) were arriving in Europe at the time from the island of Samoa in the South Pacific. This pigeon species looked surprisingly dodo-like about the head and clearly illustrated the possibility of a dove developing into something akin to a dodo.

In 1899 when Étienne Thirioux, a Mauritian barber, began to search caves and screes in the valleys behind Port Louis, a second, and very important, source of bones was discovered in a small, partly collapsed cave at the foot of Le Pouce Mountain, including the only skeletons of the Didosaurus (the largest known) species of skink, the Mauritius 'Red Hen', and the sole dodo skeleton where all the bones belong to a single bird – these precious specimens are still preserved in the Natural History Museum in Port Louis. Although the bones discovered by George Clarke were thoroughly worked up, Thirioux's were not, although the reptile material was studied, much later, in the 1940s and 1970s.

The dodo was thought to be large and fat, even, perhaps gross in appearance. Their swollen body shape together with much reduced wings rendered flight impossible and in all probability dodos were rather sluggish in their general movements. According to some writers they were so clumsy that when they tried running to evade capture their rotund bodies wobbled and their bellies scraped along the ground. Naturally, they were forced to nest at ground level and on the authority of Françoise Cauche (1651) it is said that a single white egg was laid, deep in the forest, on a bed of grass.

The popular image of a fat and stupid creature comes from the celebrated painting of the dodo by Jan Savery (1589-1654). On his visits to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Lewis Carroll was inspired by this image and the only remaining dodo skull and claw (both are still on display there), to create his own fictional version for 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland': "When they had been running half an hour or so, the dodo suddenly called out "The race is over", and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking "But who has won?"

The painting in the Museum was presented to the Ashmolean in 1813 by W.H. Darby. It dates from 1651, and was the best known in a series of dodo portraits attributed to the Flemish artist, Jan Savery. His uncle, Roelandt Savery, painted many images of the dodo, and it seems likely that Jan copied his from one of these paintings. Despite the unquestionable talent of the artists concerned, many of the older dodo paintings were based on the few birds brought to Europe. Others may well have been drawn from badly stuffed specimens, and in some cases they were simply copied from earlier paintings. One such example is the painting of the dodo by George Edwards (1694-1773), who was perhaps best known as the "father of British ornithology". Edwards was a pioneering writer and illustrator of birds and natural history, who combined the mundane duties of a Bedell (or Beadle) at the Royal College of Physicians with visits to sketch the menageries of aristocrats.

The Oxford dodo was immortalized in Lewis Carroll's 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'. Carroll, who became a mathematics lecturer at Oxford and published books on mathematics under his own name, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, would often amuse three little girls by telling them the story and taking them to see the dodo, including the original "Alice", the daughter of Henry Liddell, Dean of Christ Church.

That image of the weird, flightless, dim-witted dodo is now being challenged by contemporary scientific research. Dr Andrew Kitchener, Principal Curator of Mammals and Birds at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh has created two life-size reproductions of the dodo – one is housed in the National Museum of Scotland and the other is in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They are based on research using hundreds of actual dodo skeletons and bones unearthed by naturalists in the Mare aux Songes swamp in south-east Mauritius.

The new, slimmer, streamline dodo is very different from the fat, cuddly buffoon celebrated in the painting of Jan Savery. Kitchener's research presents us with a lithe, active, smart dodo superbly adapted to live and survive prosperously in the forests of its native Mauritius. The popular image of a fat, immobile, flightless dodo was drawn by Savery and his contemporaries because the live specimens that they used as models had been shipped over to Europe on a diet of ships biscuits and weevils and then overfed by their over-zealous owners as they exhibited them to the general public. In 1991, further credence was given to this new image of the dodo, when a series of long-lost drawings by Admiral Wolphart Harmanszoon dating from 1601 were discovered in The Hague after having been lost for over 150 years. These drawings confirm the thin, streamline image first seen in van Neck's drawings of the dodo from 1598.

On 13 April 1995, an Exhibition was held at the Zoology Museum of the University of Amsterdam on the theme: 'The Dodo "Raphus cucullatus, Didus ineptus". Ben Van Wrissen, author of the Exhibition Catalogue, explained that its aim was to sift away the improbabilities and hearsay about dodo knowledge, through an inventory of all known remains in museums and a reappraisal of the sources.

One of the more important revelations of the 1995 Exhibition was the discovery, during the preparation of a parallactic animation of the dodo, that a correctly articulated skeleton, if projected into one of the classical images, presented a naturally more erect attitude than is commonly supposed. Measurements of the Oxford specimen and the hundreds of bones amassed in The Natural History Museum and the Cambridge Zoology Museum, have been used to calculate how much weight the bird could have carried. This suggests that the 'fat dodo' would have been too heavy for its skeleton to support and would have collapsed. Kitchener's new reconstruction of the dodo is much slimmer and looks very similar to the earliest drawings of the bird by Admiral Jacob Cornelius van Neck.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is home, not only to the famous remains of the dodo, but also to Savery's painting of 1651 on display on the western wall of the gallery, and a copy of George Edward's later, more colourful depiction of 1759. Casts of the Oxford dodo, the 'slimline' model, and a cast of a composite skeleton are on display in the main court.

We will never know exactly what the dodo looked like, but this enduring symbol of casual, careless extinction will continue to fascinate generations to come.


- Peter Holthusen


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