What’s in a name? The Oxford dodo

The logo of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a dodo. Dodo – logo: the blog had to be called ‘Dodology’.

Oxford is one of the few places in the world that has genuine dodo remains. According to a 1656 catalogue, the Tradescant collection, which is the basis of the collections in all Oxford’s museums, contained a complete stuffed specimen. At some point between then and now most of the specimen was destroyed, either deliberately or accidentally. Somehow, someone managed to retrieve the head and one foot, which are kept in safety in the museum to this day. Copies of them are on display in the Museum, the only place in the world where you can look into the eyes – or at least the sightless sockets – of a real dodo.

The Oxford dodo has inspired many artists and writers, notable Lewis Carroll, who included a dodo in Alice in Wonderland. Its sinuous beak, plump body and soft grey feathers give it an engaging charm that has been captured in paintings, stuffed toys and even the ‘Dodopad’ range of calendars.

These reproductions cannot hide the fact that while dodos once peaceably roamed the island of Mauritius, the arrival of Portuguese, Dutch and British sailors in the 1500s and 1600s wiped them out in less than two centuries. None has been seen alive since 1681.

The pathetic remains in the Museum are a mute reminder of the fragility of the global ecosystem. We have thoughtlessly destroyed the dodo, and even though there was enough DNA in the remains to satisfy zoologists of its place in the pigeon family tree, we will never get it back.