A unique dodo specimen kept under lock and key in Oxford may have what it takes to resurrect the iconic species… but can we solve its grisly murder?
18 December 2019
IN 1598, a squadron of Dutch ships landed on an uninhabited island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. The crew put ashore and discovered an abundance of wildlife, including “a great quantity of foules twise as bigge as swans”. They killed and ate some, but the meat was no good, so they killed and ate some parrots and pigeons instead. The walghvogel, meaning “tasteless bird”, was off the hook – for now. Within a century, however, it was no more. Its chicks and eggs had been predated remorselessly by invasive rats, cats, dogs and pigs, and its habitat on the once-pristine paradise of Mauritius was destroyed. The last recorded sighting of the bird, now known as the dodo, was in 1662. At the time, nobody much noticed or cared.
My first sighting of a dodo came earlier this year in Oxford, UK, and I very much noticed and cared. Like many people, I had assumed that dodo specimens were two a penny. They aren’t, and the one at Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a one-off: it is the only one to preserve soft tissues, and hence could one day be used to “de-extinct” the dodo and undo what those hungry Dutch sailors set in motion more than 400 years ago. That is for the future, though. For now, what makes the Oxford dodo especially fascinating is its past. It turns out it isn’t the bird we thought it was.
The specimen isn’t on public display. It is kept in …