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Pirates, Charles Darwin, and One Very Un-Extinct Dodo

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"Dodo Birds". Black and amber chalk on cream paper. By Roelandt Savery, ca. 1626. Public Domain; click for source

Any animated film starring pirates, Charles Darwin, and a dodo is going to be worthy of mention here, but Aardman Animations — of Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run fame — has outdone itself with “The Pirates!: Band of Misfits”. I missed its theatrical run. But I happened to catch it recently and I think it’s well worth your time, especially if, like me, you enjoy witty, screwball comedies.

Here’s a taste:

As soon as I saw her, it was obvious the pirates’ “parrot” Polly was a dodo. Which was a bit unexpected, considering the film also features Charles Darwin and Queen Victoria. By that time, dodos had been dead as … well, dodos for well over 100 years. This goes on to become a major plot point in the film.

Dodos were giant flightless pigeons endemic to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, east of the coast of Madagascar. The species went extinct sometime in the late 1600s, barely 100 years after their discovery by Portuguese sailors. Although hungry Dutch traders and other seamen have historically been blamed for the loss by eating the naive birds, feral introduced animals like pigs may have been the larger force. Regardless, the world is poorer for it. At least for two hours, I got to pretend there was at least one left, which was fun. One quibble: actual dodos reached about 3 feet high and weighed at least 20 pounds — possibly as much as 40. The bird in the film seems to be adorably chicken-sized.

This movie was based on the first book a series called “The Pirates! In An Adventure with Scientists”. That was also the film’s title in the United Kingdom. Strangely, the subtitle was changed to “Band of Misfits” in America, Australia, and New Zealand. Hypotheses abound on the reason, including US audiences’ presumed distaste for science and certain Americans’ known distaste for Charles Darwin.

Certainly, it’s not the first time a UK title has been changed to make it more palatable or “understandable” to Americans (“Sorcerer’s” Stone, anyone?). And don’t get me started on the shamefulness of replacing Sir David Attenborough’s timeless narration and script with a dumbed-down Oprah version, as was done to the US version of “Life“. Still, considering they didn’t change the content, if a new subtitle got more American backsides into “Pirates” movie theater seats, I can’t object too much.

Jennifer Frazer About the Author: Jennifer Frazer is a AAAS Science Journalism Award-winning science writer. She has degrees in biology, plant pathology/mycology, and science writing, and has spent many happy hours studying life in situ. Follow on Twitter @JenniferFrazer.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RSchmidt 12:18 am 05/23/2013

    If we could clone an animal back from extinction, I think the dodo would be one of the best candidates. There is reason to believe the dodo was critical for seed germination for some of the palms on the island. Do we have enough genetic material to create a population?

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  2. 2. David_Bressan 4:34 am 05/23/2013

    To note how Darwin is making notes even when walking the plank…

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  3. 3. David_Bressan 4:35 am 05/23/2013

    P.S. Darwin and Wallace: the lost photograph

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