Who shot the Dodo?

By Scott Billings, Digital Engagement Officer

If ever the Oxford Dodo were to have squawked, its final squawk may have been the saddest and loudest. For the first time, the manner of death of the museum’s iconic specimen has been revealed: a shot to the back of the head.

This unexpected twist in the long tale of the Oxford Dodo has come to light thanks to a collaboration between the Museum and the University of Warwick. WMG, a cutting-edge manufacturing and technology research unit at Warwick, employed its forensic scanning techniques and expertise to discover that the Dodo was shot in the neck and back of the head with a 17th-century shotgun.

Mysterious particles were found in the specimen during scans carried out to analyse its anatomy. Further investigation of the material and size of these particles revealed them to be lead shot pellets of a type used to hunt wildfowl during the 1600s.

The Oxford Dodo specimen, as it has come to be known, originally came to the University of Oxford as part of the Tradescant Collection of specimens and artefacts compiled by father and son John Tradescant in London in the 17th century. It was thought to have been the remains of a bird recorded as being kept alive in a 17th-century London townhouse, but the discovery of the shotgun pellets cast doubt on this idea, leaving the bird’s origins more mysterious than ever.

Dodos were endemic to the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. The first European accounts of the bird were made by Dutch explorers in 1601, after they rediscovered the island in 1598. The last living bird was sighted in 1662.

The story of the Oxford Dodo is especially significant because it represents the most complete remains of a dodo collected as a living bird – the head and a foot – and the only surviving soft tissue anywhere in the world.

This discovery reveals important new information about the history of the Oxford Dodo, which is an important specimen for biology, and through its connections with Lewis Carroll and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland of great cultural significance too.
– Professor Paul Smith, Museum director

The Oxford Dodo represents the only soft tissue remains of dodo in the world. This iconic specimen was taken from the Museum to WMG at the University of Warwick for CT scanning.

WMG’s CT scans show that this famous symbol of human-caused extinction was shot in the back of the head and the neck, and that the shot did not penetrate its skull – which is now revealed to be very thick.

The discovery of such a brutal demise was quite a surprise as the scans were actually focused on discovering more about the Dodo’s anatomy, as well as how it lived and died. This work will continue, but we now have a new mystery to solve: Who shot the Dodo?

What’s the next step? It is possible that the isotope of lead in the shot could be analysed and traced to a particular ore field. This might tell us what country it was mined in, and perhaps what country is was made in, and ultimately reveal who shot the Dodo.

Cockroaches on my mind

This year the Museum is playing host to three poets in residence as part of our Visions of Nature year. The poets, John Barnie, Steven Matthews, and Kelley Swain, have been working alongside staff in our collections and out in the Museum itself to gain inspiration for their writing over the past six months. In the autumn, they will take part in a number of events and activities to present their work, and will be publishing a small anthology at the end of the year.

Here John Barnie reveals what has inspired him during his residency as well his creative process.

Madagascar hissing cockroach (Gromphadorhina portentosa)

Recently, Kelley Swain and I were allowed to handle live tropical cockroaches at the Museum. They were much larger than the ones I knew when I lived for a time in Memphis, Tennessee. Those lived in the kitchen inside the stove and behind the fridge, waiting to crawl out if you turned your back for a moment while chopping vegetables or meat. Pest control officers came a few times, spraying foul-smelling insecticide everywhere, but next day the cockroaches were back, seemingly unaffected by the poison.

The tropical cockroaches at the Museum were beautiful, their exoskeletons gleaming as their antennae whirred, trying to identify what the palm of my hand might be, and I could see why some people keep them as pets.

My experience of writing poetry is that you can’t decide consciously what the subject of a poem is going to be. A poem ‘emerges’, shaping itself in the mind. Usually it is written quite quickly. There may be a good deal of revision later, but at this first stage the process is almost automatic.

I was apprehensive, therefore, about having to write poems to order as a poet in residence at the Museum. I needn’t have worried, though. During my visits so far, subjects for poems have crowded in, one on another.


Take cockroaches. Over the years I have read a number of books on the mass extinctions that have occurred during the past 650 million years and I’m aware that leading biologists and naturalists, Edward O. Wilson and David Attenborough among them, believe we are in the middle of one now, caused primarily by our own species. Mass extinctions create bottlenecks and it seems that it is a question of luck rather than ‘fitness’ that determines which species survive to radiate beyond.

This set me thinking about cockroaches, that seemingly indestructible group of insects I encountered in Memphis and now again at the Museum. I’d bet on them getting through the bottleneck to evolve and proliferate in a brave new world. As to humans, well that’s another matter.

These experiences and thoughts gradually fused into a poem, ‘Cockroaches on my Mind’, which I never could have thought up and which certainly would not have emerged without tropical cockroaches prickling my skin that day in the Museum.