Painting the dodo

Avian paleontologist and artist Julian Pender Hume is an expert on the dodo. His research has led him to question the familiar but slightly comical iconic image of the flightless bird.

No other bird looks quite like the dodo. Our image of them is from paintings and illustrations made while the birds were still living. But recent finds of fossil bones have led scientists to question these long-held views.

Did the dodo really have the bulky body, stout legs and huge head we are familiar with from the famous 1626 painting by Flemish artist Roelandt Savery? How much was the artist influenced by the style of agricultural painting popular at the time?

The Savery dodo turns out to be based on very little physical evidence. Recent research on fossil bones has led the Museum scientist to a different scientific interpretation, and he has painted his own version of the classic dodo image to show this.

The key difference is in the neck and breast of the bird, which may have looked more snake-like than fat and bulbous. Being flightless, the dodo’s breast bone was quite small and flat and it wouldn’t have needed hefty wing muscles in its breast.

But using science to change the most famous dodo painting of all makes Julian feel as if he’s tampering. As he says of Savery: 'He was actually alive and he painted that bird when the dodo was alive. Here I am in the 21st century, putting my scientific opinion on it. Who is correct? We will never know.'