Curator's Choice: The Zoological Museum

One of the most striking specimens we have in the museum is that of the dodo. We display more than 4,000 specimens but this one is unique because it is a model and not stuffed - no real specimens exist in the world any more. The external appearance is only known from the accounts of mariners, a few sketches and some paintings by the Dutch artist, Roelandt Savery

The animal itself was about the size of a rather overweight turkey with very short legs and an enormous beak. As far as we know it was a greyish white colour and was reputed to be a slow, stupid animal and very easily caught. Most of them were slaughtered by sailors looking for meat even though it wasn't terribly palatable. Although quite abundant when people first landed on Mauritius, by 1640 they had started to become scarce and while there might have been a few in 1662 it was around this time that they became extinct. Final extinction was probably caused by introduced species such as cats, pigs and monkeys feeding on the eggs.

The point about having the exhibit, even if it is only a model, is that it illustrates all the problems of recent conservation efforts. The dodo was eaten and exploited by men who did not care for the environment, only for their immediate needs.

I like it principally because it was a beast with some character. It looks very strange to us with its odd shape. A parakeet looks like a parakeet, a pigeon looks like a pigeon but the dodo was something absolutely different. There is endless speculation about its habits, but nobody really knows.

Iain Bishop is the curator of The Zoological Museum, Tring, Herts (0442 824181). The opening times are 10am-5pm Mon-Sat, 2pm-5pm Sun

(Photograph omitted)

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