The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)
By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2013
Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.
If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.
Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.
We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world.
Apologies if that seems overly dramatic, but as I said I think it’s the BEST NATURAL HISTORY SPECIMEN IN THE WORLD.
In thinking about it over the last five minutes, I’ve come up with a list of what I consider the ten most exciting specimens in the UK to see. This is a highly subjective list, subject to change, of things with historical, cultural, scientific value or a combination of these things:
- The London Archaeopteryx (Natural History Museum (NHM))
- A fluid preserved coelacanth (NHM, among others)
- The Horniman walrus (Horniman Museum and Gardens)
- Any of Darwin’s fluid specimens (NHM and Cambridge University Zoology Museum, among others)
- Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living 1991 (Private collection)
- The giant squid (NHM)
- The quagga skeleton (Grant Museum of Zoology)
- The plastinated elephant from Animals Inside Out (Body Worlds)
- The “first” platypus specimen (NHM)
- THE OXFORD DODO HEAD AND FOOT (OUMNH)
It may smack a little of the museum nerd to be having palpitations about a leathery bit of skin on a skull of an overgrown pigeon. But a) wouldn’t it be bad if I weren’t a museum nerd and b) bear with me…
Dodos are pretty significant. By most standards, they are the icon of extinction. It would be hard to argue that the extinction of the dodo, by the 1690s, wasn’t the first occasion that people realised that they had driven another species to extinction.
Dodo bones are scattered across the globe in a number of museums. People seek them out when they visit a museum known to have them (like ours). They are on the Natural History Museum Bingo Card (that we are considering registering as a trademark) along with giant deer, thylacines, a slice of tree trunk and a whale skeleton. As exciting as seeing all of these things are, I’ve never been so excited at a museum specimen than seeing the Oxford dodo.
Most dodo material in museums are sub-fossils from a swamp on Mauritius called the Mare aux Songes (that’s why they’re brown). These are specimens that were collected centuries after the birds that used to own them died. There are only two or three specimens IN THE WORLD that were collected as living animals. Of all of them that are known, only the Oxford one has any soft tissue on it.
It started life-after-death as a taxidermy dodo, so it’s slightly devastating to think that we could have a complete skin of the species if only circumstances were slightly different. What most people have been told about this skin is that in 1755 the Museum’s trustees decided it had suffered too much pest damage to display, so they chucked it on the fire. The head and foot were then rescued by a member of staff from the flames. That is all that remains of the dodo today. [Please don’t stop reading at this point].
This is the story I had learned (and perpetuated) but the fantastic zoology curator who showed us the specimen told us that THIS IS NOT TRUE. Where does this story come from then? Apparently, there is a Latin word for inspection that is very close to the word for fire (if only I could remember what it was). The records of the University were written in Latin, and this is how the fire was inserted into the dodo’s history.
These few grams of skin are all that remain of what the dodo looked like. We were genuinely privileged to have seen it. Very many thanks to all our colleagues at Oxford for sharing so much. The Museum is fantastic and well worth a visit when they reopen in 2014. In the mean time follow their Twitter account, ironically called @MoreThanADodo
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology