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Saturday, 14 September, 2002, 11:29 GMT 12:29 UK
Bringing the dodo back to life
The dodo: 'A turkey designed by committee'

At first glance the Mauritian coat of arms looks like any other, until one notices that the creature on the left is a dodo rampant.

The concept of a rampant dodo is so deliciously absurd that it's hard not to giggle.

For all the evidence we have suggests that the dodo was singularly cumbersome and defenceless. Hence, maybe, its Latin name, didus ineptus.

Mauritius coat of arms featuring
Mauritius' rampant dodo (left)
The Dutch, who settled the previously uninhabited island in the early 17th century, referred to the dodo as the walgvogel, or "ghastly bird."

This was apparently because, no matter which way you cooked it, its flesh was as tough as old boots. However, that didn't stop the colonisers hunting the poor dodo down.

Even in their cups, the Dutchmen could outrun the flightless bird, and then finish it off by biffing it on the head.

For a long time, no-one was quite sure what sort of fowl the dodo was. It looked a bit like a turkey designed by a committee.

Evolutionary cul-de-sac

Eventually, naturalists declared that it was a kind of inflated pigeon, which evolution had sent in a rather unfortunate direction.

The problem was that until humans arrived, the dodo had no natural predators to protect itself against.

So instead of developing a set of defence mechanisms, like other creatures over the millennia, the dodo lost whatever ones it had to start with.

So delightfully secure was its environment on Mauritius that it could lay its solitary, giant egg on a grassy knoll in the middle of the forest and not have to worry about it.

What really finished the dodo off, other than Man himself, were the rats that hitched a ride to Mauritius on some of the Dutch ships. They made a beeline for the shore when the vessels ran aground on the coral reefs, or sank.

For the rats, the dodo's eggs, just sitting there in the grass, were like Christmas and Easter all rolled into one. Young dodo chicks made a pleasant alternative menu.

Thus it was that by 1681, the last dodo had gone. Gone, but not forgotten.

The making of a legend

For in extinction, the dodo has gained true fame. It was, as the American novelist Gore Vidal once said of a fellow scribe who'd just passed away, "a brilliant career move."

The Mauritians have long understood the commercial potential of their most famous, inhabitant

It wasn't just Lewis Carroll, author of the children's classic Alice in Wonderland, who realised that the bathos of the dodo could make it the most dramatic bird in history.

Scientists of the Victorian period went into overdrive over it. Then someone managed to reconstruct a skeleton of a dodo, out of a pile of old bones.

Mauritius beach
Dodos once roamed untroubled around the island
The assemblage can still be viewed in the Mauritian Institute, in the island's capital, Port Louis, not far from an imaginative mock-up of an entire bird.

The latter does look like - well, something out of Alice in Wonderland.

The Mauritians - a wily, as well as charming, multicultural people - have long understood the commercial potential of their most famous, albeit extinct, inhabitant.

They spotted the dangers of relying too much on one cash crop for export - sugar - so started manufacturing dodos as well.

The dodo 'reborn'

Wooden dodos. Plaster dodos. Gem-encrusted gold dodos. And thousands upon thousands of cuddly, fluffy toy dodos, with beseeching, take-me-to-bed-with-you eyes.

Mauritians are determined that if the dodo is to live again it had better do so in Mauritius

They're the hottest selling item in the international airport's duty-free shop, apart from rum.

Imagine the consternation, therefore, when scientists recently declared that they could reconstruct a dodo from DNA.

Not as a motionless exhibit to display in the Mauritian Institute, but a living, breathing resuscitation, from beyond the grave.

As a high proportion of the island's population is Hindu, they don't have too much difficulty with the idea of reincarnation.

But this is a novel twist. And one thing many Mauritians are determined about is that if the dodo is to live again, then it had better do so in Mauritius.

How the tourists would flock!

See also:

28 Feb 02 | Science/Nature
31 Dec 97 | Science/Nature
10 Sep 01 | Country profiles
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