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Ode to a dodo: new music and research released

Specially commissioned music and stories of a dodo in Japan perpetuate the myth of probably the most famous bird in the world.

A research paper by artist and Museum fossil bird specialist Julian Pender Hume and a new experimental composition for the harpsichord by Tim Watts have raised the status of the already legendary dodo.

Endemic to Mauritius and extinct for around 350 years, the giant flightless pigeon continues to capture people's imagination, partly because it was wiped out by human carelessness.

Dr Hume, who recently contributed to the re-imaging of the dodo in Sir David Attenborough's Natural History Museum Alive film, studied the seventeenth century journals of the commander of a Dutch factory in Deshima, an island off Nagasaki, Japan. 

Survival of the fittest

The journals suggest that, not only was a live dodo transported to Japan from Mauritius by boat, but also that the birds were still surviving on Mauritius in 1647, a few years after scientists estimate the species went extinct.

Part of the reason no one knows exactly what the dodo, Raphus cucullatus, looked like is because only a few of them were ever exported to Europe, possibly as few as two, one of which lived at the back of a shop in London. 

The Dutch settled on Mauritius in 1598 and used it as a refreshment station for ships en route to east Asia. Deshima was particularly important because the Dutch were the only Europeans allowed to trade with Japan, but could only do so through the island.

Dr Hume now suggests that a dodo and a white deer were sent by the Dutch to Deshima in 1647 as rare gifts for the governor of the island or one of his superiors, to maintain good trading relations.

Unknown fate

But the mystery of the dodo continues. While the destination of its travelling companion, the white deer, was recorded, the fate of the dodo upon arrival in Deshima is unknown.

‘Unless documentary evidence survives that records it presence in Japan, the fate of the last recorded captive dodo will never be known,' said Dr Hume.

'That live dodos survived the arduous and lengthy voyages both east and west, however, is certainly testament to their endurance and adaptability.'

Within a century of the Dutch settlement on Mauritius, the dodo had been wiped out due to the decimation of the ebony forests and the introduction of non-native animals such as rats and monkeys that preyed on the bird and its eggs. Sailors also ate dodo meat.

Music and natural sciences

In a collaboration between the Royal College of Music and the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the Museum, Tim Watts chose the dodo skeleton housed at the Museum to inspire his new classical composition for the harpsichord, Dodo Suite. 

Dodo muse

'Despite being a composite, the dodo skeleton seems full of personality, as if it is trying urgently to communicate through the glass that now confines it,' Watts said.  

'My Dodo Suite seeks to animate this sense of personality, through allusions to the dance forms and contrapuntal style of the time of the dodo's discovery. The harpsichord, which not so long ago also came quite close to extinction, inhabits an "imaginary space", created using sounds recorded in different parts of the Museum, as well as "replicas" of harpsichord sonorities created with plucked piano strings.'

Dodo Suite is part of an ongoing project exploring the potential of using natural history specimens to inspire classical music. It premiered on Monday as part of the Cambridge Science Festival, in partnership with St John's College, Cambridge.

Dodo re-image

Because dodos are so rare, the specimen on display at the Museum is a composite made up from bones from different animals. New research suggests the dodo was leaner and more upright than traditionally portrayed.