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Half a dodo found in museum drawer. Staff at Grant Museum surprised to discover remains of extinct bird amid mass of crocodile bones during move to new home

Half a dodo found in museum drawer. Staff at Grant Museum surprised to discover remains of extinct bird amid mass of crocodile bones during move to new home

By Maev Kennedy, Monday 21 February 2011 18.14

Half a dodo has turned up in an Edwardian wooden box in a drawer at one of Britain’s oldest natural history collections.

Not much surprises the staff at the Grant Museum, where the contents include an old sweet jar full to the brim with pickled baby moles, their paws pressed pathetically against the glass, and the skull and antlers of an extinct species of giant deer which some academics bought straight off the wall of an Irish pub.

However, even they were a little startled when the dodo turned up, stored with a mass of crocodile bones.

"They do have common characteristics, crocodiles and birds," Jack Ashby, the museum’s learning access manager, said. "It was an understandable mistake."

The dodo remains emerged as the Grant, part of University College London, moved its 70,000-item collection to a new home in an Edwardian former medical library.

It may look like a collection of blackened bones, but the dodo is an exceptional find. The afterlife of the disastrously delicious flightless bird in museums is almost as tragic as its extinction in its native Mauritius in the 17th century.

No complete specimen survives, although in the 19th century at least two were destroyed by curators who decided they were in unacceptably poor condition, including the one at the Natural History Museum in Oxford that inspired Lewis Carroll’s dodo in Alice in Wonderland.

The bones will be displayed alongside another treasure of the collection, the Grant’s quagga – an extinct South African relative of the horse, resembling a zebra. The old catalogue said the collection held two zebras: it turned out that one was a donkey, and the other was the quagga, one of only seven almost complete skeletons in the world. (Almost complete because it lost a left hind leg, probably when the collection was moved to a Welsh slate mine during the Blitz.)

The catalogue has been tormenting the curators: the oldest entries merely say what the object is, not how it got there. College legend says their Galapagos tortoise came back on the Beagle with Charles Darwin, but they can’t prove it. The cut marks on the inside of the shell strongly suggest the rest of the poor creature went into the stew pot on board.

The Grant, founded in 1827 as a teaching collection at UCL, is the last university zoological museum in London, and includes many items that were orphaned when their original homes closed. It still holds many specimens prepared by Robert Edmond Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy in England.

Other finds include the lower jaw of a crocodile, now reunited with its skull which has been on display for a century, and a fossil pterosaur assumed to be a plaster cast, which to the surprise of staff turned out to be the real thing – and a rare specimen.

The new displays, lining the walls and gallery up to the ceiling, already look as if they’ve been there for a century, apart from interactive labels, created with the university’s technology department, which will allow visitors to access or even add information through a smartphone, and the iPad on which debates will be launched about contentious issues such as animal experimentation and racial distinctions.

"People are fiercely protective of this museum," manager Natasha McEnroe said. "They loved the old fashioned cases jammed full of specimens, and they didn’t want a thing changed. But this new space is so beautiful, we hope people will love it even more."

The Grant Museum reopens to the public on March 15. Admission is free.

Image: Dodo reconstruction (Raphus cucullatus) reflecting new research at Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Source: Wikimedia Commons