Of all the dead things on display in London's Natural History Museum, the dodo on the ground floor is the most interesting.
I think so, at least. When I lived in London I used to visit it on lonely weekend mornings, looking into its sad leathery face in meditative silence. It seemed to inspire pilgrimage, somehow, acting as a totem symbolic of human error and the tragedy of extinction.
The dodo would appear to be a biological relic, caught and stuffed before its species died out by the early 18th century. But there's a further, stranger dimension to the museum's bird: it's not really a dodo at all. It's a composite, a Franken-dodo made out of parts of other birds sewn together in the image of something never seen in real life by its creator.
The National History Museum's resident dodo expert Julian Pender Hume is a palaeontologist, artist, and author of numerous papers on extinct birds, as well as co-author of the book Lost Land of the Dodo. I asked him over email about the origins of the faux dodo, and how accurate a depiction it might be. "As far as I am aware, the taxidermy dodos (there are two designs) were made by Rowland Ward, one of the greatest Victorian taxidermists, and were first exhibited around the 1890s at the Natural History Museum," he said. "They are made from plaster and swan and goose feathers."
The result is quite literally a tapestry of influences, both visual and literary. It lives between fact and fiction, half biological science, half a product of the imagination.
Art based upon art, this stylised image of the dodo was passed along like a cultural Chinese whisper. "The models were based on the large, fat dodo illustrated by Roelant Savery, the most prolific of all dodo artists," Hume said. "One represents the Mauritius dodo, the other the white dodo of neighbouring Reunion Island. Ward was wrong on both accounts. The Savery dodo is now considered to be a gross exaggeration of the dodo's true form."
In a video shot on behalf of the Natural History Museum, Hume reimagined the dodo with a painting that was more scientifically accurate, correcting the Savery dodo painted in the late 1620s. He explained how previous depictions exaggerated the dodo, creating the image we know today. "It was certainly a more athletic bird, and one report describes how it could outrun a human over rough territory," he said. The white taxidermy dodo is yet more erroneous, as it never actually existed: "Its existence was based entirely on written accounts of mariners, which turned out to belong to an entirely different bird, the solitaire or Reunion Ibis."
"It's like the dodo has died again."
The dodo vanished far too quickly to be properly recorded and preserved. Native to Mauritius, the species is mentioned in ship's logs by spice traders and sailors. Over the years, in response to an environment without predators, the bird lost the need to fly. Its wings shrank, redundant, while its body swelled.
When non-native creatures were brought to Mauritius aboard ships and the ebony forest was decimated, the dodo population fell. Then as the Dutch East India Company languished, its sailors turned to eating dodo meat. They found it tough and chewy, but other options were scarce. The bird would be extinct by the time they left the island, in 1710.
Colonisation has a way of rewriting nature, introducing new fictions which become real while realities cease to exist. A century and a half after they became extinct, naturalists began to claim that the dodo had never existed in the first place. The bird was last documented as alive in 1688, and drawn from life by Cornelis Saftleven in 1638.
As time progressed, the image of the dodo endured but lost its grounding in reality. The single complete dodo skeleton in existence, found by Etienne Thirioux some time between 1899 and 1917, remained mainly unstudied until last year, when it underwent a series of 3D scans in a bid to reconstruct what the creature looked like.
Other museum exhibits presented as dodo skeletons are in fact incomplete composites made from several birds (one such composite lives at Harvard's Natural History Museum, driving one visiting expert, upon discovering the fraud, to remark, "It's like the dodo has died again.")
Armatures are cast from the bones of other birds and padded out to fill in the gaps in our body of knowledge. So little is known about how the bird really lived: how it moved, its facial expressions, even the colour of its feathers.
Even now in its afterlife, the dodo spawns new fictions. The Oxford Dodo, actually only a head and a foot, was said to have been rescued from a fire by a scientist after the full specimen was judged too rotten to keep (a story dispelled in this piece in the New Yorker). And those same dodo relics famously inspired Lewis Carroll to write the creature into Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in what is said to be a stuttering self-parody.
Dürer's rhinoceros, the woodcut depiction of the animal as an exotic armoured beast with a horned back and scaly legs, was famously created without the artist ever having seen a rhinoceros in real life, based instead on sketches and written descriptions. The image endured, touring Europe and inspiring artists to create further renditions of the imagined creature, until it was accepted as the definitive depiction of what a rhinoceros actually looks like.
Has the same thing happened to the dodo? Rhinoceroses exist today, however endangered, and few children could grow up without seeing a photograph or video of one at least once. The same cannot be said for the dodo.
I asked Pender Hume whether, in a museum, a composite dodo is better than no dodo at all, and he replied, "Although much has changed about our perception of the dodo and its appearance, I think that for historical reasons alone, the inaccurate dodos should stay. They represent what was thought and known about the bird at the time. Furthermore and despite all publicity to the contrary, new interpretations of body shape and plan are not widely recognised."
When we see the museum's composite dodo, are we looking at science, or art, or a combination of the two?
Maybe the bird belongs to fiction after all. The phrase may go "dead as a dodo," but it lives on in Wonderland.