Peterhouse and the dodo

Oxford University has the real connection to the Dodo, famously through Lewis Carroll's fictional character of Alice in Wonderland, but more importantly in the fragments of the once stuffed Dodo in the Oxford University Museum. Cambridge does have its connections too; the University Museum of Zoology has a generous handful of bones (and a good composite skeleton of this and the related Rodrigues Solitaire) and Peterhouse students claim the bird as a mascot. While other colleges have traditional associations with different animals (usually for obscure or completely forgotten reasons) Peterhouse lacked such a connection until 2014. In that year the JCR decided that the Dodo was the animal that symbolised the college best, as the student newsletter ('The Dodo') said: "Let us not lose heart at the dodo's sad end, however. Rather, we should consider all the ways in which is the perfect animal mascot for Peterhouse! It's small. It's a little bit inept at sport. It's cute. It's profoundly eccentric. It's a little insular, but all the more friendly because of that."

The Dodo does indeed make a good parallel with Peterhouse, for both have been regarded as anachronistic and both have recently had radical make-overs. While Peterhouse has been moving away from its stuffy, male-dominated history the Dodo has been remodeled in the light of new research. From the fat, waddling bird of literature and humour it has slimmed down and is now seen as a little less ridiculous.

The University Museum of Zoology has Dodo bones dug up on Mauritius in the 1870s. These include a whole skeleton, unfortunately this great rarity is a composite of bones form many individuals.

Dodos are few and far between, but biology teaching at Peterhouse does makes use of a bone and also the skull of an equally extinct giant tortoise that lived alongside the Dodo.

historical dodos

Dodos over the years: 1605, 1617, 1626, 1865 and 1895 (above) and Julian Hume's new interpretation (below) Julian Hume's reconstruction


Justin Gerlach by e-mail