Of dodos and politicians

“The Dodo never had a chance. He seems to have been invented for the sole purpose of becoming extinct and that was all he was good for.”

Quoted from How to Become Extinct (1941) by American humourist Will Cuppy, who wrote for The New Yorker.

Roelant-Savery-dodo-1626The dodo has had a long and successful afterlife. Its most prolific and influential illustrator was the Dutch painter Roelant Savery. A famous painting of his from 1626, once owned by the pioneering ornithologist George Edwards, is kept in the Natural History Museum, London.

Roelant Savery’s nephew Jan is also best known for his 1651 painting of the dodo now held by the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It inspired the writer Lewis Carroll Jan-Savery-dodo-1651(Charles Dodgson) to include the creature as a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll was making fun of himself, since he had a nervous stammer that often made him introduce himself as “Do-do-dodgson”.

The artist John Tenniel later brought the dodo back to life in his illustrations for Alice, and he turned for inspiration to the collection at Oxford, meaning that Alice’s dodo is not just any old dodo, but Jan Savery’s. Savery (1589-1654) came from a family of Golden Age painters led by his father and two uncles, who taught him.

Images produced by the first Europeans to visit Mauritius in 1598 show very thin birds, challenging traditional depictions of a fat, ungainly dodo. Recently, measurements of the Oxford specimen and the hundreds of bones amassed in other museums have been used to calculate how much weight the bird could have carried. The findings suggest that the “fat dodo” would have collapsed, being too heavy for its skeleton to support.

In 1865, a swamp on Mauritius called the Mare aux Songes, yielded up dodo bones. Originally, a shallow lake to which animals and birds came to drink fresh water, it is the only place on Earth where the dodo is known to have been part of a thriving ecosystem. It was here that enough fossilised dodo bones were found to cobble together a complete skeleton. Yet by the mid-20th century, the Mare aux Songes had vanished. The swamp was a breeding ground for mosquitoes, so it was filled in during a malaria epidemic. No one then thought to note its exact location, but in 2005 it was discovered for a second time by dodo enthusiasts.

Researchers and local campaigners are now concerned that building projects around the fossil site will do irreversible damage and jeopardise a bid to have its natural heritage recognised by UNESCO. They have written to the Mauritian government asking for the area around the Mare aux Songes – and a nearby dune system that has helped shelter the site from the sea – to be protected.

The first occasion on which the expression “dead as dodo” was used in public is said to be in 1891, when the press reported the tribulations facing embattled Irish MP Charles Parnell: “After the next general election Mr. Parnell will have only four followers. Except as a private member of Parliament he is as dead as a dodo.”

Since then the expression has been given wide currency, but any resemblance between dodos and British politicians today is, of course, entirely coincidental. You might think that, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

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