The dodo may be extinct and yet …
Who would have thought a dumpy now-extinct bird, the dodo would have inspired so much debate and continues to do so to this day. East London Museum scientist, Kevin Cole, muses on this intriguing bird which remains an iconic symbol of extinction and inspired a little girl called Alice.
Extinction is a word which hangs over the natural world and reminds humanity of our fragility as a species. Over the millennia thousands of species have gone extinct and the world is entering the sixth extinction event since the beginning of life on Earth (as we know it 545 million years ago). One species which foraged on the island of Mauritius is still the strongest symbol of an extinct species – the dodo (Raphus cucullatus), a flightless bird belonging to the pigeon family. Its peculiar form represented by a bulky beak, rounded body and stocky profile has carved a place in the human psyche that habitat loss, over-utilisation of a species (by hunting) and predation by introduced alien animals can lead to being, well, ‘as dead as a dodo’!
Every day in some part of the world, species are going extinct – some we may never know existed at all. The East London Museum curates an egg believed to be that of the extinct dodo. It is quite sobering to view a tangible representation of something that will never be reproduced in the living world again. The eggs of birds and reptiles generally house the expectation of a life-form and the museum egg is a stark reminder that we still have challenges in protecting living organisms in their natural habitat (the tragic case of increasing rhino poaching in South Africa being a case in point). Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, the first curator of the East London Museum received the dodo egg from her great-aunt Lavinia Bean in 1935. It was a treasured family specimen which found its way to the museum and resulted in a cast of the egg being displayed along with a model of the dodo which was imported from the United Kingdom. The original is kept in a strong-room at the museum.
Lavinia Bean received the egg from a Captain van Syker, a friend of her father Mr L.O. Bean, on the 15th January 1847. Mr Bean was a naturalist and Captain van Syker collected many curios for him. Lavinia was a keen collector of bird’s eggs and when Captain van Syker visited Port Elizabeth in 1846 en route to Mauritius he committed to bring back an egg for her collection. This commitment was fulfilled when Captain van Syker obtained the egg from an old resident of Mauritius who parted with one of two eggs to settle a debt. The old resident was a descendant of a ship-wrecked sailor who had decided to remain on the island. Dodo’s are believed to have been extinct by 1662 having been first recorded by Dutch sailors 64 years earlier in 1598. The influence of humankind and introduced monkeys, cats, rats and pigs all contributed to the demise of this iconic bird. A swampy area known as the Mare aux Songes is where most of the surviving dodo bones have been recovered. This site is two km’s away from the present Mauritius International Airport. The living dodo’s were believed to have weighed between 10 and 22 kg, were approximately 72 cm in height and similar in length. They fed on fruits, berries and seeds and inhabited the south and west coastal areas of Mauritius. In 2006 I visited the Oxford Natural History Museum where a dodo skeletal is on display. It was this display that intrigued a little girl who took walks with author Lewis Carroll and who was later to be immortalised as Alice, along with the dodo in his popular work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). Much has been written about this bird and perhaps the stark reminder that it symbolises humankind’s negative influence on the natural world lends weight to its enigmatic appeal.