A brief history of the Dodo – or, how one species came to be a Victorian environmental icon.

Dodo_(VOC_Gelderland,_1602)

Sketches of the Dodo drawn from life on Mauritius for the Dutch East India Company, 1602. The famous “Gelderland” drawings are probably some of the most realistic that have survived for analysis. Picture Credit: V.O.C/Wikimedia Commons.

Within modern political discourse, concern for the environment is often unthinkingly assumed to stem from the first alarming North American ‘tipping points’ centring on the critical overexploitation of localities which occurred from 1950 to 1975, and arguably continues throughout the world today. In particular, this includes the identification of the loss of wildlife and biodiversity within exploited localities, exemplified by the research and prophesies of the first truly prominent environmental scientists such as Carson and Lovelock.

While the half-myth of this arbitrary scientific and philosophical genesis fits comfortably into a highly complex liberal consensus of the post-industrial and post-globalisation responsibilities of the state, space age anger only really constituted a revolution in environmental thought. Evidence of environmental concern over impact and biodiversity amongst technologically advanced civilizations far pre-dates the advent of D.D.T and O.P.E.C.

Stemming from the rational values of the European enlightenment, academia during the Industrial Revolution created clearly recognisable preliminaries of modern climatic and biological analysis, albeit devoid of a global perspective due to technical and societal constraints. The radical mid-eighteenth century theories of De Buffon tentatively began the process of assessing the environmental impact of humans in the Holocene in a way truly distinct from reliance on the interpretative Early Modern ‘Great Chain of Being.’ Naïve sources from the so-called ‘Age of Discovery’ also provide us with further unique perspectives on first encounters within the “natural laboratories” of remote islands, through an arguably anthropological filter. These have proved exceptionally useful to scientists and historians alike in reconstructing the irrevocable alteration of ecosystems.

There is a lot to be learnt from examining both the environmental methodology and mistakes of the past. Yet amongst the historiography and popular culture of environmentalist forethought within historical biology, the exemplary case study has been that of the Mauritian Dodo. Iconic to the point of being instantly recognisable, the Dodo enjoys a privileged position as the nominal ‘poster species’ for biodiversity loss and mass extinction.

Raphus cucullatus has become an enigmatic and enduring symbol of unnecessary destruction. A humble tropical, flightless pigeon has helped to cast a long shadow of doubt over humanities ultimate role in the world into modernity, from an iota of first hand experience.The ultimate environmental moral of this avian martyr to colonisation and development is contained in how few first hand accounts are available. Between initial settlement in 1598 and c.1681, the species constituted a mere ornithological curiosity amongst the literate classes and (more frequently) a source of easy game meat for the seaborne working on Mauritius until c.1638, when the surviving population probably moved inland.

Competition from imported mammals such as the common rat probably proved highly detrimental, but this is hard to absolutely prove in the wake of extremely poor observation. In the absence of a typically dense breeding population, the Dodo went into terminal decline. Within one hundred years of settlement and regular human contact, the species was extinct.

These apathetic attitudes that aided the eradication of the Dodo are bitterly reflected in the small amount of surviving historical evidence. Most reasonably reliable written sources derive from the Dutch East India company, and can be comfortably listed within a single article. Regardless, these existing accounts are often ambiguous, factually flawed when cross-referenced or fundamentally erratic in nature, complicating analysis.

Physical remains are also astoundingly scarce; only two recent Holocene skeletal specimens (the Ashmole and Thirioux deposits) are known to have survived into the twentieth century in Oxford, England and Port Louis, Mauritius. Additionally, most sketches and paintings from life or carcass are confined to a very small number of examples from a four decade window of Dutch art, with the (likely inaccurate) works of Savery dominating.

800px-Roelandt_Savery_-_'Dodo_Birds',_Chalk,_black_and_amber_on_cream_paper

Savery’s imagined sketch of three Dodo birds foraging, c.1626. The unrealistically fat Dodos depicted probably stemmed from observation of one of the very few birds to survive transportation to the courts of Europe, far removed from their natural habitat and diet. Picture credit: Wikimedia commons.

With the addition of enduring and popular misconceptions, it is understandable that the average modern mental picture of the Dodo is probably woefully inaccurate, and the scientific one inevitably flawed to some degree. For example, it is a widespread assumption that the Dodo was an ungainly and obese bird as in the drawings of Sir John Tenniel despite more recent scientific evidence pointing towards the Dodo being closer to an athletic scavenger. Even within more academic texts, speculation and logical conjuncture still abound in discussions of the Dodo. Despite approximately two centuries of fossil interest, we still do not know the precise diet, morphology, behavioural patterns and definitive cause of extinction for the Dodo, as palaeontology cannot substitute fully for direct zoological observation.

It is unsurprising therefore that the majority of the European academic community outside of Britain during the early eighteenth century seemed to have held the Dodo to be pure myth, or at best a subject of contentious validity in biological science. However, the late eighteenth and nineteenth century provided a redemption, and posthumous recognition for the species. A combination of French scientific radicalism and the subsequent English biological revolution (encompassing the theories and work of Lamarck and Darwin) marked a change in fortune for the bird.

As speculation over the impact of the increasingly adept and sprawling European civilizations grew, political upheaval resulted in Mauritius being annexed in 1814 as a British outpost during the Napoleonic conflict. This coincidental event that had the fortunate side effect of greatly assisting the research into historical Dutch settlement of the British intellectual elite, a group that already possessed the only reliable and tangible Dodo remains in Europe. An increasing interest in biological adaptation and variations within fossil material from the 1830’s thus led to Strickland and Melville’s gradual assembling of their exhaustively researched “Dodo scrapbook” from which the vast majority of our primary sources are still derived.

Subsequent osteological dissection undertaken by Strickland and Melville in 1848 of the cranium (from part of the Ashmolean Dodo, the rest bar a foot having been unfortunately incinerated by Oxford curators in 1755) and of post-cranial anatomy by Owen et al from the Clark deposit of fossil remains in 1866 greatly furthered attempts to biologically define and identify the Dodo. Through Owen reconstructing an anatomical frame by juxtaposing the skeleton onto the surviving works of Savery, a rudimentary working model of Dodo physiology and morphology was created, proving the existence and subsequent demise of the Dodo beyond reasonable doubt. This combination of biological science, palaeontology and historical research within both art and literature helped to enshrine the Dodo as an inarguably evident example within wider nineteenth century theories of extinction.

Alongside other examples of vanished fauna examined by the scientific community in the wake of Darwin (such as Steller’s Seacow and the Great Auk) the Dodo contributed greatly towards proving indisputably that human impact can influence an ecosystem to the point of obliterating an entire species. Following the publication of these respective and quietly extraordinary monographs in the midst of rapidly emerging radical work by Darwin, Huxley and Wallace, the Dodo increasingly became something of a minor Victorian celebrity.

Most famously of all, Charles Dodgson (better known as Lewis Carroll) was directly inspired by the Dodo’s increasing academic fame and a contemporary display accompanying the remains at the Ashmolean. Dodgson popularised and personified the Dodo in 1865 within Alice in Wonderland, using the (then) ungainly and ridiculous figure as an allegorical vessel for self insertion into his playfully absurd world. This appearance helped to make the Dodo a common point of reference within both the United Kingdom and America.

In the words of Nicholas Pike (writing in 1873) “Everyone has heard all about the Dodo…1” testifying to the extraordinary impact of a fairly obscure biological quandary in middle class culture within the English-speaking world. As well as the obvious metaphorical appeal of its unfortunate demise, the absurd, grotesque and oddly named bird lent itself well to becoming an object of romantic and patronising affection for the educated Victorian public, analogous perhaps to penguins today. This has had long-lasting effects. As well as the obvious environmental fable, the Dodo retains an undeniable popularity amongst authors with a decidedly phantasmagorical focus. Successful writers from Adams to Fforde have used the bird to flavour their surreal plots.

Image

Sir John Tenniel’s iconic illustration of the Dodo, 1865. Picture credit: The Victorian Web, http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/tenniel/alice/3.2.jpg. Educational/Academic use only.

While literature and popular culture undoubtedly transformed some general attitudes towards nature, this new scientific knowledge contributed to more serious protective measures in law. Although we should not confuse Victorian legislation with measures aimed at global protection, it is both notable and fitting that Mauritius became the first country in the world to enact legislation restricting hunting of specific species in 1878, in light of this new narrative of concern over excessive natural exploitation. Many other species have since vanished worldwide through the impact of humanity but this can be seen as the start of a long road towards conservation and protection within British territory, one which would be paralleled in America and Australasia as species became accidentally outmoded by increased human settlement and technological development.

The Dodo is but one part of several larger narratives, in that it is both an object of scientific and historical interest and a moral warning from history. While the arguments for retaining our natural environment are far too complex to go into here, to write off the loss of the Dodo as an acceptable casualty of modernity would be enormously callous considering the highly interconnected nature of natural life cycles and the loss to the human experience that each extinct species represents.

However, the Dodo may not stay permanently extinct. Recent developments and advancements in genetics have opened up the serious possibility of redressing this historical injustice in the near future, either out of scientific or moral interest. It is highly possible that within the next century (pending investment and clearance) the Dodo will live once again via genetic reconstruction and cloning. This would constitute a fitting final chapter for a noble (if poorly adaptable) species that has suffered so much unnecessary persecution both intellectually and physically through ignorance.

Further materials of interest.

Strickland and Melville published their findings (along with illustrations and additional research) for public consumption in 1848. It is now possible read and download the classic The dodo and its kindred online here as a result of the generosity of the various benefactors of Biodiversity Heritage library collection.

1 Checke, Anthony S. and Turvey, Samuel T.,  ‘Dead as a dodo: the fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 20, No. 2, (June 2008) 149–163.

Bibliography.

Checke, Anthony S. and Turvey, Samuel T., ‘Dead as a Dodo: the fortuitous rise to fame of an extinction icon,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 20, No. 2, (June 2008) 149–163.

Hume, J.P., Cheke, A.S., and McOran-Campbell, A., ‘How Owen ‘stole’ the Dodo: academic rivalry and disputed rights to a newly-discovered subfossil deposit in nineteenth century Mauritius,’ Historical Biology, Vol. 21, No. 1–2, March–June, (2009) 33–49.

Hume, Julian P., ‘The history of the Dodo Raphus cucullatus and the penguin of Mauritius,’ Historical Biology, Vol.18, No.2, (2006) 65–89

Nicholls, Henry, ‘Digging for Dodo,’ Nature, Vol. 443, Sep., (2006) 138-140.

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