Read: The smart, agile, and completely underrated dodo
In the late 16th century, when Dutch sailors returned home from Mauritius with stories about a large, ground-nesting bird, the dodo was just one of thousands of unfamiliar species that travelers were describing and displaying to European audiences. “There were all sorts of wonderful animals coming into Europe—you had the first giraffe, the first cassowary—so the dodo was just another interesting animal,” says Julian Hume, a British artist and paleontologist.
As dodo numbers plummeted, their eggs gobbled up and their habitat destroyed by the rats, cats, dogs, and pigs that disembarked from arriving ships, nobody in European scientific circles suspected that the species was in trouble. At the time, most people in Europe and elsewhere still believed that all species were divine creations, and that extinction of any kind was impossible. Not until the late 1700s did scientists realize that extinction was possible, and not until the mid-1800s did they accept that it could be caused by humans. By that time, the dodo was so long gone that it was only hazily remembered—as a kind of vulture, or albatross, or even a small ostrich. Some people suspected that it was more like a mermaid, in that it had never existed at all.
The dodo was rescued from mythical status by two Victorian researchers, Hugh Strickland and Alexander Melville, who collected surviving firsthand accounts of the species in an 1848 book called The Dodo and Its Kindred. The book brought public attention to the dodo, inspiring Lewis Carroll to include a plump fictional dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—and prompting amateur and professional scientists to begin searching, belatedly, for real dodo remains.
Perhaps inevitably, the search got competitive, and the competition got nasty. In 1865, after years of looking, a schoolteacher named George Clark discovered a jumble of fossilized bones, including dodo bones, in a Mauritian marsh called the Mare aux Songes. Richard Owen, an anatomist at the British Museum, was so eager to get ahold of Clark’s finds that he laid claim to bones meant for his colleague Alfred Newton—knowing that Newton, whom Owen had recently recommended for an academic appointment, would be in no position to protest. Newton’s brother Edward, a colonial administrator in Mauritius, was outraged: “I must say that I feel very indignant about the conduct of Owen in the case of Clark’s Dodos,” he wrote to Alfred. “He has shown himself to be a very mean-minded illiberal sort.”
While scientists squabbled over the bones from the Mare aux Songes, Louis Etienne Thirioux, a Mauritian barber and avid amateur naturalist, was quietly looking elsewhere. Thirioux, who reportedly entertained customers with his “genius for conversation,” nonetheless spent his Sundays and holidays alone, reading scientific literature and hiking through the mountain range that bisects the island. In the late 1800s, he started excavating fossilized bones from caves and river valleys, eventually assembling the two dodo skeletons now displayed in Mauritius and Durban. (Almost all the bones in the skeleton in Mauritius are thought to be from a single individual; the skeleton in Durban, like all other dodo skeletons known today, is a composite.)