For centuries, the fate of the Oxford dodo – the very one that inspired the character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland – has been a complete and utter mystery. Historians suspected the bird had been kept alive as an exotic pet, the Stuart England equivalent to a Bengal tiger, but recent analysis reveals the grim reality. It had been shot in the head. Probably as it was being hunted as wildfowl.
The Oxford dodo is famously the only intact dodo head specimen in the world. A team at the University of Warwick used forensic CT scanning technology to build a three-dimensional digital model of the dodo’s skull. Incidentally, it is the same technology used in criminal investigations, which is pertinent given that it turns out the bird had been murdered. The researchers found lead shot pellets, commonly used by 17th-century hunters to shoot wildfowl, in its head and neck.
The discovery came as a bit of a surprise.
“When we were first asked to scan the Dodo, we were hoping to study its anatomy and shed some new light on how it existed. In our wildest dreams, we never expected to find what we did,” said Mark Williams, leader of the Product Evaluation Technologies and Metrology Research group at WMG, University of Warwick, said in a statement.
“Although the results were initially shocking, it was exciting to be able to reveal such an important part of the story in the life of the world’s most famous extinct bird."
The dodo is one of the most well-known examples of an animal gone extinct, not a particularly enviable distinction by any standard. The start of the end began in in 1598 when a crew of Dutch sailors first set foot on Mauritius, a tropical island in the Indian Ocean. The flightless bird – a close cousin to the pigeon – had lived in a state of blissful isolation for thousands of years and was totally unprepared for life with humans.
Recently, research has shown that it was not actually the sailors themselves who were responsible for the dodo's demise but the ship rats and animals they brought along with them. The interlopers outcompeted dodos for food and snacked on dodo eggs, a major dilemma for the bird because they only laid a single egg a year.
The last known sitings of the bird was in the 1660s, round about the time the Oxford dodo was shot. The skull and foot has been stored by Oxford University at their natural history museum for over three centuries, brought to the city by the botanist John Tradescant.