The Dodo of Mauritius was discovered in the late 16th century by Dutch sailors who stopped on the island to take on fresh water and food supplies. The earliest descriptions of the bird indicated that it was the size of a swan, unable to fly but walking with dignity. Not fearing humans, the dodos were easily caught and slaughtered for meat, even though their flesh was not highly prized for its taste.
A few of the birds were shipped to Europe, India and Japan as exotic curiosities. One found its way to father and son John Tradescant in London. During the 17th century the Tradescants were assembling a formidable collection of natural and manmade objects and the Dodo’s stuffed skin was displayed to the public. Their catalogue described it as ‘Dodar, from the island of Mauritius. It is not able to fly, being so big’.
In 1683, the ‘Tradescant Ark’ was offered by its new owner, Elias Ashmole, to the University of Oxford and placed in the newly-built Ashmolean Museum. Over the years, the specimens suffered from damage inflicted by insect pests and frequent handling, and by 1756 only the head and one of its feet remained; these are now stored at the Museum of Natural History.
In 2002, DNA analysis of the Oxford Dodo yielded even more information about its origin. Thousands of years ago it arrived in Mauritius from the Nicobar Islands, off India; finding no natural enemies, and no competition for food, the Dodo grew in size and gradually lost its ability to fly. But in the end its size was not enough protection to prevent humans, and the animals introduced by them, including pigs, rats and monkeys, from causing the Dodo’s extinction. Of course, the Oxford Dodo lives on in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The book’s author, Charles Dodgson, wrote under the penname Lewis Carroll, but his stammer earned him another name still: ‘Do-do-dodgson’.