Historic Blunders

3rd March 2006 at 00:00
Your starter for 10. What creature was Sir Thomas Herbert describing in 1634? Her "shape and rareness may antagonise the Phoenix of Arabia; her body is round and fat, few weigh less that 50 poundsIher visage darts forth melancholy, as sensible of Nature's injurie in framing so great a body with wingsIso small and impotent".

Yes, that's right. It's the poor old dodo. The flightless bird, a member of the pigeon family, lived happily on the island of Mauritius until the dawn of the 16th century. Then a storm blew some Portuguese sailors on to this extinct Indian ocean volcano and things started to turn nasty. For the next 200 years the ungainly but friendly bird that had never known a predator was the target of human insults. Consider its name. Dodo probably comes from the Portuguese "doudo" which means foolish or simple. Or maybe the Dutch were to blame. They colonised the island in 1644 and their word for lazy and slothful is "dodoor". Even Linnaeus, the father of taxonomy, couldn't resist a bit of fun at the creature's expense - calling it "Didus ineptus". Aside from ridiculing the dodo's appearance, or its rolling gait, the Europeans were also rude about the taste of its flesh. Not that it stopped them hunting the bird in large numbers - easy meat as it was virtually tame. And the cats, dogs and swine they brought to the island discovered that dodo eggs were easy eggs, lying vulnerable in grassy nests on the forest floor. Then the forest itself came under attack as people began to plant sugar cane where the bird liked to roam, or at least plod.

So the dodo suffered the ultimate insult: extinction. By 1693 humans had managed to rid the planet of the big-beaked creature. Only a few stuffed specimens were left, the remains of birds captured alive and brought to Europe as a kind of avian freak show. One, donated to Elias Ashmole's museum in Oxford, was burned in 1755 by curators under orders to get rid of old and tatty specimens. When they looked for a replacement, they discovered they had destroyed the last one in existence.

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