Discovering a dodo in New Zealand

Department of Conservation —  14/09/2017

By Madison Charles, DOC Intern

Just recently, I found a link between a leading New Zealand engineer and the world’s symbol for extinction – the dodo.

While working as a DOC intern, I spent over 300 hours researching the Kawarau Gorge Suspension Bridge in Otago. Built in 1880, the bridge was designed by engineer Harry Pasley Higginson. It is recognised internationally for its ingenuity and originality.

Kawarau Bridge. Photo: Kathrin and Stefan Marks | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Kawarau Bridge. Photo: Kathrin and Stefan Marks | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

While on a break, I went to visit Old St Paul’s in Wellington. It was near closing time when one of the lovely ladies recommended I also visit the Cathedral of Saint Paul nearby.

Off I hurried. On my arrival, I was met with more exquisite artwork, brightly covered glass panels, and high ceilings. A walk around the back corridors led me to more windows with more stories where one window in particular stopped me in my tracks.

Harry Higginson Memorial.

Harry Higginson Memorial

Imagine my surprise when I came face to face with a Harry Higginson memorial stained glass-window at the back of the Cathedral. It’s not known who donated the money to have the window created, only that it was most likely painted by Beverly Shore Bennett in 1975.

The window includes the Kawarau Bridge in grey, surrounded by beautiful, hypnotic and colourful patterns – as well as a large, prominent dodo bird!

Why was there a dodo bird on Harry Higginson’s memorial window? A search of the University databases led me to a part of Higginson’s backstory.

When Higginson was a young engineer working on a railway in Mauritius, his men came upon a collection of bones that they didn’t recognise. He believed they could belong to the dodo, as he had some knowledge of the bird and knew about the search for their bones.

A stamp from the Mauritius commemorating the discovery of the dodo skeleton.

A stamp from the Mauritius commemorating the discovery of the dodo skeleton

He took a collection of bones to George Clarke, a professor at Mahebourg, who identified them as dodo. In his travelogue, ‘Reminisces of Life and Travel 1859-1872’, on the 19 October, Higginson wrote:

The result showed that many of the bones undoubtedly belonged to the dodo. This was so important a discovery that Clarke obtained leave to go out to the morass and personally superintend the search for more. He eventually despatched a large quantity to the British Museum, which sold for several hundred pounds.

I sent a full box to the Liverpool, York, and Leeds museums from which, in the former, a complete skeleton was erected. This is the only spot in the world where these bones have been found; and all that are now to be seen in various collections came out of the same bog, only 200 feet in diameter.

Higginson wasn’t given much credit in his lifetime for his integral role in the discovery of dodo bones. As the person who identified the bones scientifically the discovery was attributed to Clarke, yet without Higginson’s quick mind they may not have been recognised and simply cast aside.

Dodo skeleton. Photo: Josh More | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dodo skeleton. Photo: Josh More | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This was one of the most interesting discoveries that I made during my research probably because I was not looking for it in the first place. My friends were as shocked as I was that I found out about something so interesting and told them a story that they never would have heard otherwise!

It was rewarding to find pieces of my research in my everyday life, and recognise connections in places where I didn’t think they existed.

Further information

Apply for DOC’s Summer Intern Programme, visit the famous Kawarau Bridge in Otago or learn more about DOC’s heritage places.

4 responses to Discovering a dodo in New Zealand

    Kim Brandon 14/09/2017 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you sharing. Such a brillant surprise history. I love history like that beautiful bridge. Fancy discovering the dodo….


    Interesting. And I’ve still got the photos to see 🙂 Can’t get the image of ‘Rossasaurus’ from TV program Friends outta my head though..

    exploringcolour 14/09/2017 at 8:42 am

    You’ve put together a great story about some unexpected connections. I really enjoyed the story and the photos. Thank you!


    That is a very cool discovery. Thanks for sharing!