Swifts, Swallows and House Martins

Swift, House Martin and Swallow

Vicky Singleton, Conservator at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Since starting at Cambridge University Museum of Zoology a number of specimens have caught my eye. One of my first roles at the beginning of the year was helping to empty and safely pack the British Birds case. This gave me the opportunity to examine a number of birds, most of which I recognised by name, but would struggle to recognise by sight (especially in flight) or I would get one species confused with another. One such example is the difference between the Swift, Swallow and House Martin. Having often wondered whether a fast flying summer bird was a Swift or Swallow, or even a House Martin I used the recent bird case decant to examine these specimens in detail so I could recognise the differences.

As you can see from the photo the appearance of the Swift is black-brown on both the upper and underparts with a pale chin, whereas the Swallow has blue-black upperparts and white underparts, with a dark chest band and red throat (I have ingrained this into my memory by thinking ‘the Swallow has a red throat to swallow’). The House Martin has blue-black upperparts and white underparts, but it also has a prominent white rump. Although difficult to tell in flight, there is a difference in the tails of the three species: the Swift and Swallow both have forked tails, but the Swift’s is short in comparison with the deep fork and long streamers of the Swallow. The House Martin’s is short and has a wider fork than the other two.

Although relatively small, these observations paid off recently during a trip to the Lake District when I found myself confidently recognising Swallows as such, something I would have been unable to do in the past.


Platypus, Ornithorhyncus anatinus

platypus 2

Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, writes:

From 1971 through to 1976 a team of four of us were working on the structure, function and evolution of the muscle protein myoglobin. Myoglobin, like the red pigment of blood, haemoglobin, reversibly binds oxygen. However, myoglobin is sited not in the blood, but in muscle, and it is able to store oxygen for use in muscular activity. As you might expect, it is particularly important in diving mammals (like whales and seals). In the early seventies, a three-dimensional structure for myoglobin had been determined, and a good deal was known about its functional aspects. We had the advantage that we had access to John Kendrew and especially Max Perutz (both Nobel prizewinners for their work on proteins) who had been involved in determining the structure by X-ray crystallography.

Our team of four was made up of two medical doctors and two zoologists. The two biochemical medics were Hermann Lehmann, then Professor of Clinical Biochemistry (and Head of the Medical Research Council Unit for Abnormal Haemoglobin – known universally as ‘the Abnormals’) and Alejo Romero-Herrera (now Alex Roher, naturalised in the US and working on Alzheimer’s Disease). The two zoologists were Ken Joysey, then Director of the University Museum of Zoology, and me; I was very much the baby of the group, both in age and achievements!

Originally, the two biochemists were interested in myoglobin because it might have been the clue to one form of muscular dystrophy, although, as it turned out, the problems are elsewhere – and that’s another story. The idea was that looking at the sequence of amino acids that make up the myoglobin of other mammals might give clues to what changes were ‘permissible’ in the protein and what changes were not. As comparative data accumulated, there was inevitably an evolutionary dimension to the work, and hence we two zoologists were recruited to look at this aspect. The attraction of including rather more exotic species was too good to resist: an Australian group had sequenced the myoglobin of the echidna (spiny anteater) but we hoped to determine the sequence of the duckbill platypus. There was a small problem in that we hadn’t got a platypus! However, the then president of The Royal Society, Lord Todd, was about to embark on an official trip to Australia.

You can guess the rest: when Lord Todd was asked what he might like as a memento of his trip, we had briefed him to ask for a fresh, dead platypus. Accordingly, he arrived back in Britain with a platypus that had suffered an accidental death, but was in very good condition. I took my dissecting instruments up to Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where the laboratory was, and removed enough muscle for the biochemists to do the work. When I had finished looking inside the platypus (and fascinating it was, too) we stitched it up and freeze-dried it in the Museum, where it was put on exhibition. So there it is: a platypus with a pedigree.