Spare a moment from the hurly burly outside, to take a leisurely stroll

Spare a moment from the hurly burly outside, to take a leisurely stroll
across our Living Worlds gallery amongst the softly lit darkwood floor to
ceiling Victorian cases and thematic Bauhaus inspired displays, and you
may be rewarded with the chance to make the acquaintance of a rather
retiring but somewhat special celebrity.
Looking out at us from amidst a suspended coterie of its cuddly toy
caricatures is the all too easily overlooked, noble avian countenance of
a dodo head, cast in profile and the very likeness of its illustrious
original, the 'Oxford Dodo' of Ashmolean fame. Some take the view that
its features, oft mistaken for a penguin by the uninitiated, appear to
have settled in what can be described as a discernibly 'rictus grin'.
Others report seeing a shy, gently knowing but never mocking smile, as
it returns our gaze with one of its own that has been there and seen all
too much on its specie's rocky road from Mauritius to the edge of
oblivion and beyond, all within the eighty year blink from first European
contact to extinction.
From its solitary habitat in the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, to its
rapid fall into the eternal embrace of the infinite everafter, the Dodo
bird, has retained the enduring mystique and iconic appeal of a virtual
synonmy for lost species, a ‘poster bird’ for the abyss of extinction. Only
the larger dinosaurs eclipse the Dodo for being better known and loved
in popular culture and daily language – quite an accomplishment for a
modest specie, closely related to many types of doves and pigeons and
found only on a faraway island.
Ironically for the dodo, it may be the very mystique arising from its
early, rapid and high profile extinction that may go some way to
explaining its particular success as an extinct species brand, over and
above the other eighty avian species lost since 1900. Admittedly, the
pleasing and memorable phonetic signature of the word ' dodo' itself,
and our intrepid hero's celebrity cameo in Lewis Carroll's 1865 children's
classic, as brought to life by Sir John Tenniel's eye-catching illustrations,
have also played their part in helping to immortalise the specie's rather
distinct name and image by contributing to its unrivalled U.S.P. 476
Surprisingly, only two dodo skeletons have ever been found, the best
preserved being discovered on the island in 2007, in a cave. This is
significant as most dodo remains have been yielded by the island’s
swamps which have caustic effects on the bones, eliminating potential
soft tissue / DNA traces. This helps explain why the cave specimen
appears to be complete, and tantalisingly may provide valuable DNA
samples, perhaps allowing mapping of the specie’s full genetic code and
heralding a host of new information about the Dodo.
Across the passage of time, the global stage has many times been
swept clear of the species that had long held sway, prior to our
relatively brief time in the limelight, the dinosaurs again being the best
known. We are privileged today to be able to snatch glimpses of many
of these vanished species of flora and fauna, spanning the ancient
through to the all too recent, through the refracted lens of scientific
study painstakingly pieced together from the Victorian tangibilities of
the fossil record and taxidermy, through to the virtualities of
contemporary preoccupation with digital capture and genetic decoding.
However, such dramatic changes have been as a result of the universal
processes of life itself, such as climate change, tectonic movements,
major asteroid impacts. This is simply no longer the case. The rise of
just one specie, ours, has changed the rules of the game as we
continue to wield a grossly disproportionate impact on species and
environments with unprecedented rates of habitat and species loss
across the complexities of the planet's interwoven ecological webs.
The tale of the humble dodo is most edifying for the way in which it
quietly illustrates the early impact of these changes on one specie, and
what they could spell for life on earth. The extinction of the dodo can
be attributed to a single factor - human intervention: a wide range of
predatory species including dogs, rats, pigs, monkeys, cats and others
were introduced to Mauritius by early Dutch and Portugese explorers
visiting the then uninhabited island. These species predated upon the
birds or their eggs, which were conveniently laid on the ground, almost
as a banquet. When crew and passengers made landfall fresh food was
a priority and fuelled large scale hunting of the dodo, made all too easy
due to its lack of both flight and fear, as it had evolved in a habitat
where it had no predators. Large numbers may also have been hunted
to be taken back for display, scientific specimens and curios. Within a
single modern lifetime both the dodo and its eggs were hunted to
The way in which the dodo was so swiftly and silently despatched, with
little popular or scientific awareness or concern about its loss perhaps
typified both attitudes to extinction up to the mid twentieth century, as
well as how the drivers of change in the planet's biodiversity have
shifted from extrinsic to anthropogenic. The dodo looking at us from
behind the glass on our gallery, has seen much of it though not all:
'habitat change, loss and degradation', 'overexploitation', 'invasive alien
species' all played their role in the dodo's early exit. However, its
relatively early demise spared it the more recent drivers such as the
rapid climate change, pollution, and introduced pathogens currently
wielding the scythe for today's species. 339
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) was founded
in 1948 as the world's first global environmental organisation and
remains the largest to this day. The IUCN Red List of Threatened
Species connects the work of scientists and organisations from almost
all nations to assess the relative risk of extinction across the species; to
catalogue those plant and animal species which are moving towards
extinction (i.e. those listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered and
Vulnerable)using scientifically rigorous criteria; and to promote global
awareness of their situation with a view to managing or reversing the
risks posed. 96
A vibrant example of the potency of such international 'grass roots' cooperation in both raising public awareness and pioneering new
conservation strategies, can be seen right here at Manchester
Museum's state of the art Vivarium. Under Curator of Herpetology,
Andrew Gray, the Vivarium works both on the ground in Costa Rica,
Honduras and Guatemala through 'cutting edge' field work and research
within habitats, alongside local people and partnerships as well as
through the provision of free, accessible and informative 'live' displays,
daily 'handling sessions', expert led tours, and a 'transparent' window
onto the backstage laboratory areas. This provides accessible entry
points for the public to make tangible, emotional connections with the
species, their habitats and conservation status as well as promoting
direct awareness and support for front line conservation efforts. Such
global connectedness and co- operation gives us a powerful and
positive message about just what we can, have and must do to protect
the planet’s biodiversity and prevent too many other species from
sharing the fate of the dodo looking out at us from the wrong side of
a museum display case.