Wallace’s Bird of Paradise

Wallace's Bird of Paradise

Roz Wade, Interpretation and Learning Officer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Some of the most inspiring specimens in the Museum are those collected by great naturalists of the past. With collections made by the likes of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, the Museum is rich in inspiration. Wallace is a particularly interesting figure in the history of the collections. He is perhaps most famous as the co-discoverer of the theory of evolution by natural selection, his essay on the subject being read at the same time as Darwin’s at the Linnean Society of London on July 1st 1858. The following year Darwin published “On the Origin of Species”, covering the topic in more detail. In the 20th century Wallace faded a little from the story of evolution, but with the centenary of his death in 2013 his fame, deservingly, has increased.

Where Darwin was born into a wealthy family, Wallace was not and paid his way through selling exotic specimens from his collecting expeditions. The Museum of Zoology has many specimens purchased from Wallace. Perhaps Wallace’s most famous expedition was to the Malay Archipelago (now Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia) from 1854 – 1862. It was while on this expedition, when suffering from a fever (probably malaria), that he came up with the idea of natural selection as a mechanism of evolutionary change. He also noted a discontinuity in the geographical distribution of certain groups of animals, now described as the Wallace Line delineating the extent of Asian and Australasian animals in this island group. Wallace is often recognised as the “Father of Biogeography” for his studies on the geographical distribution of animals. It is from the Malay Archipelago that many of the Wallace specimens in the Museum’s collections originate.

There are certain moments that remind you how much of a privilege it is to work with a collection like that of the Museum of Zoology, and one such moment for me was exploring drawers in the Bird Room looking for Wallace specimens for a potential new display being planned in the Museum of Zoology. In one drawer containing box after box of delicate bird skeletons were skulls belonging to Wallace’s Bird of Paradise (also known as Wallace’s Standardwing), Semioptera wallacei, collected by the man himself. This species was discovered by Wallace in 1858, and named in honour of him by George Robert Gray of the British Museum in 1859. There is a touch of magic about seeing objects owned or collected by such giants of natural history as Darwin and Wallace, an inspirational experience we hope the new museum displays will give to all its visitors.

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