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Wed 21 Jun 2006
The most acccurate rendition of that most unfortunate bird (species), the Dodo
Category : dinosaurs
The Dinosaurs! exhibition might be filed with towering and fearsome dinosaurs from the Cretaceous, but one recent bird captured the imagination of all involved in setting up the exhibition - the Dodo.
Finally, there exists an accurate rendition of this unfortunate species; in fact the model specially prepared for the exhibition by Phil Fraley Productions is the most accurate model of the species in the world to date. That's little comfort of course, since "Extinction is Forever!"
Phil Fraley, by the way, has "25 years of experience producing natural history museum exhibits" and led the team that mounted the actual fossil T. rex Sue at The Field Museum in Chicago. That weighed more than 1,500kg
I was away during the highly anticipated unveiling but Heok Hui's photos captured an excitement that threatened to surpass the assembly of the well-known dinosaurs in the Singapore Science Centre's Annex on 17th May 2006. Meanwhile, Tan ("Dino-boy") Swee Hee emailed me the document that Peter had enthusiasticallly drummed up for the exhibit.
17th May 2006, L-R: Phil Fraley (Phil Fraley Productions), Clarence Sirisena (Asst. Chief Executive, Singapore Science Centre) and Peter Ng (Director, Raffles Museum) and the freshly unwrapped model that arrived safe and sound.
The Dodo (Raphus cucullatus) model by Phil Fraley Productions.
By Peter Ng
The dodo is the most iconic extinct bird of the modern era. Discovered by Dutch sailors in 1598, it took less than a century before the bird was exterminated by Man. By 1690, the bird was extinct. It is a bird that has been immortalized in many stories, most notably in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and more recently in the movie Ice Age.
The dodo is a large flightless pigeon, growing to the size of a small turkey and lived only on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Scientists puzzled over what kind of bird it was after its discovery. Its scientific name reflects its confused history - some thought it was a relative of the raptorial vulture (hence "Raphus"); others believed it was related to cuckoos (hence "cucullatus"). We now know it is a large ground pigeon.
For a herbivorous bird to grow large and lose the ability to fly is no surprise - the island never had large predators anyway! Its size, inability to fly and general lack of fear of man proved fatal when the dodo encountered hungry sailors, and the host of non-native or alien animals that were introduced to the island like dogs, cats and rats. The human and alien animal pressure was to prove fatal to the species.
The present model of the dodo by Phil Fraley Productions is currently the MOST accurate rendition of this famous extinct bird. Many older models and drawings depict the dodo as a short, stout and clumsy bird. But the fact is this: even though we caused its extinction in relatively modern times there is NO complete specimen of the dodo anywhere on the planet. Not even one proper taxidermised specimen. Not even one complete skeleton!
Other than paintings and sketches dating back to the 1600s, we have no real idea what real dodos look like. Many of the paintings were based on second- or even third-hand information and so their accuracy is in doubt and many stories about dodos are difficult to believe.
Phil Fraley Productions had looked at all the evidence available about the bird, analyzed what is believed to be the most accurate data and paintings available, studied skulls and bones in museums, talked with ornithologists and biologists (including staff from the Raffles Museum) and consulted with dodo experts extensively to arrive at this version.
It looks quite different from all earlier versions and models in other museums. They have given this bird a "life" and character well beyond the folklore associated with it - that it was a silly looking, ill-adapted bird, doomed to extinction anyway.
The Dodo model acquired by the Singapore Science Centre and NUS' Faculty of Science will survive beyond the Dinosaurs! exhibition, for further use in education. It is too critical and grim a reminder of the short-sightedness of man to let this bird get away.
Photos by Tan Heok Hui, 17th May 2006.