A bird with a message: the dodo

Broadcaster Liz Bonnin and specialist James Hyslop are moved by a rare dodo skeleton — ‘this isn’t just a rare and intriguing curiosity, but represents what humans are doing to animal life on the planet’ — offered in London on 24 May 

Standing 64 cm high (just over 2 feet), with brownish-grey feathers, a tufty white tail, yellow feet and a large black and green beak, the dodo was a strange-looking bird that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. It was, curiously, a larger relative of the pigeon.

The first recorded contact between humans and a dodo dates to 1598, when Dutch sailors ventured ashore on the tropical island. Within less than a century of this initial encounter, the dodo had become extinct.

‘I suppose we could be forgiven for thinking, “Well, that is just a bird waiting to become extinct”,’ says the natural history broadcaster Liz Bonnin. Yet the bird’s reputation for being fat and clumsy is unfair; in fact it was perfectly suited to its environment. In reality, the dodo’s inability to fly was an energy-saving adaptation. And as Bonnin says, the island lacked natural ground predators: ‘Everything was rosy’.

Dodos thrived on Mauritius. ‘It lived, as far as we can tell, right from the coast up to the highest mountain peaks,’ explains James Hyslop, Head of the Science and Natural History department at Christie’s.

A dodo skeleton, Mauritius, before 1690. 25 x 22 x 14 in (64 x 55 x 35 cm). Estimate £400,000-600,000. Offered in Science & Natural History on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

A dodo skeleton, Mauritius, before 1690. 25 x 22 x 14 in (64 x 55 x 35 cm). Estimate: £400,000-600,000. Offered in Science & Natural History on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

So why did the dodo become extinct so quickly? ‘The portrayal of it as a gullible little animal that sailors clubbed... probably isn’t the whole story,’ reveals Hyslop. ‘It’s much more likely that introduced predation by rats or other animals is what really [drove] the final nail in the coffin.’

Sixteen contemporary written accounts were made of the bird while it was alive, as well as 15 illustrations, but not long after the final sightings of the animal in the 1660s, it entered the realm of myth. Over the next 200 years, a dried head filled with lead shot at Oxford University, and a long-lost foot in the British Museum, were the only known material evidence of the bird.

In the second half of the 19th century, however, the dodo re-emerged, so to speak. ‘Two wonderful things happened,’ Hyslop explains. ‘Darwin wrote his book On the Origin of Species, which really brought to the front of scientific thought the idea of extinction and evolution. But also, Alice in Wonderland  was published, featuring a famous dodo.’ These books were the catalyst for the dodo to become an icon of the natural world, and of its vulnerability to human interference.

Michele Vitaloni (b. 1967), Lost. Oil on wood and iron. 29½ x 19¾ x 15 in (75 x 50 x 38 cm). Estimate £20,000-40,000. Offered in Science & Natural History on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

Michele Vitaloni (b. 1967), Lost. Oil on wood and iron. 29½ x 19¾ x 15 in (75 x 50 x 38 cm). Estimate: £20,000-40,000. Offered in Science & Natural History on 24 May 2019 at Christie’s in London

‘The Victorians had an obsession for collecting, and ordering the world,’ continues Hyslop. ‘The Natural History Museum wanted to have examples of everything and the dodo was a glaring omission.’ Scientists and sleuths subsequently set sail for Mauritius in search of dodo skeletons. The vast majority of bones were found in a swamp named Mare aux Songes on the southeastern tip of the island.

The land belonged to a French amateur scientist named Paul Carié, who began assembling skeletons for museums, made up of fossilised and unfossilised bones from diverse dodos. Today, just 26 institutions worldwide have significant dodo remains in their collections.

It was Carié who compiled this skeleton — the very last known, privately owned example assembled in the 19th century that is almost anatomically complete. In fact, Carié kept this prized specimen for himself, and it has been passed down through his family ever since.

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The dodo skeleton will be on view at Christie’s in London between 18 and 23 May ahead of its auction on 24 May.

A wood and iron sculpture of a dodo by Italian artist Michele Vitaloni, titled Lost and pictured above, is also offered in the Science and Natural History sale on 24 May.