Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin


Roz Wade, Interpretation and Learning Officer, writes:

Working on the new displays for the Museum has introduced me to a whole range of new animals I knew little about before. Always a fan of the quirky, one of my favourites is the Hoatzin, Opisthocomus hoazin. The outward appearance of this bird was enough to spark my interest: its crazy comb of feathers on top of the head; its featherless blue face; its overall rather prehistoric look. But then its biology is even more peculiar.

The Hoatzin is sometimes called the Stinkbird after the manure-like smell produced by their unusual digestive system. This bird is a folivore, a leaf-eater. Leaves are difficult to digest, requiring specialist bacteria to break them down and get at the nutrients and energy they contain. Hoatzins have an expanded crop acting as a fermentation chamber to break down plant tissues. This enlarged crop has consequences for the flight of these birds. There is only space for some pretty small flight muscles to attach to the sternum (breast bone), so they are not strong fliers. They are quite clumsy flying around their Amazon forest home.

The chicks look like they belong in Jurassic Park. They have a pair of claws on the bend in each wing – reminiscent of the claws on the early bird Archaeopteryx. The chicks will jump out of the nest into the river below if a predator attacks, and these claws help them to climb out and back up to the nest.

I’m looking forward to putting this specimen in the new bird display, where I will no longer just walk past it on the way to other animals, but look at it and wonder at its crazy lifestyle and appearance, and hope that with the new labels and interpretation more people can discover and appreciate this wonderful creature.


The Passenger Pigeon

Passneger PigeonsAlex Tomkins, Museum Apprentice, writes:

The Museum has nine Passenger Pigeons including a beautifully mounted specimen, I always get drawn to this bird because of all extinct species, the Passenger Pigeon had the most spectacular demise, hurtling from a population of billions to a population of exactly zero in less than a hundred years. Why and how is a question I and others have asked many times.
The Passenger Pigeon or Wild Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) was abundant in North America until it was eradicated in the wild in 1900, then finally altogether on September 1st 1914 at 1pm. The only animal on Earth to have an exact time of extinction, the last Passenger Pigeon died in captivity in Cincinnati Zoo.
There were so many Passenger Pigeons in flocks that trees would often fall when they roosted and people compared there enormous sounds and screeches to “threshing machines running under full headway”. The flocks were so thick that hunting was easy—even waving a pole at the low-flying birds would kill some. Still, harvesting for subsistence didn’t threaten the species’ survival. But after the Civil War came two technological developments that set in motion the pigeon’s extinction: the national expansions of the telegraph and the railroad. They enabled a commercial pigeon industry to blossom, fueled by professional sportsmen who could learn quickly about new nestings and follow the flocks around the continent. The professionals and amateurs together out flocked their quarry with brute force. They shot the pigeons and trapped them with nets, torched their roosts, and asphyxiated them with burning sulphur. They attacked the birds with rakes, pitchforks, and potatoes. They poisoned them with whiskey-soaked corn. Ultimately, the pigeons’ survival strategy—flying in huge predator-proof flocks—proved their undoing.


Cuculus canorus


Natalie Jones, Museum Conservator, writes:

It was during the decant and packing of the British Birds case in the museums lower gallery that I came across an unassuming, grey, dove sized bird. What struck me was that I was pretty certain I didn’t recognize the species yet when reading the label I realized it had an all too familiar name – the Cuckoo. The Radio 4 series Tweet of the Day summed up this bird perfectly; ‘the cuckoo is a paradox. Few other birds are so familiar, and yet so rarely seen.”

I had always imaged the Cuckoo to be a brightly coloured bird reminiscent of a Canary or Woodpecker perhaps due in part to the mechanical birds found marking the hour of the clocks it gives it name too. In reality the Cuckoo is a blue-grey colour with dark barred white underparts, with long wings and tail. Its size, plumage and barred belly is comparable with the Sparrowhawk so much so that it was once believed that Cuckoos turned into Sparrowhawks in winter.

The Cuckoo is a parasitic species, famously laying their eggs in the nests of others. The Reed Warbler, Meadow Pipit, Pied Wagtail and Dunnock are the usual unsuspecting foster parents, and soon find their own chicks ejected from the nest by the young cuckoo.

Its onomatopoeic name is derived from the call of the male bird – cuc-koo, but what I find remarkable about this bird is the call of its young. The Cuckoo chick is able to imitate the sound of its hosts young albeit much more loudly, fooling its host parents.

Once fledged, it is able to migrate 4,000 miles to the equatorial forests in the heart of Africa without ever meeting its parents. In fact it was only in 2011 that the Cuckoos winter quarters became known thanks to tiny tracking devices placed on the birds.

The British Trust for Ornithology is tracking the Cuckoo in the Cuckoo Project which recently featured in Springwatch. The species is also a focus of study at the University of Cambridge with scientists researching the evolved plumage patterns and hawk mimicry.

There has been a significant decline in Cuckoo numbers in recent years, so much so that it is now featured on the RSPB’s Red List. When asking friends and family they admit that its been many years since they last saw a cuckoo or even heard its familiar call. Perhaps it is partly for this reason combined with the Cuckoos surprisingly shy nature that meant I did not recognize the specimen during the packing process.

cuckoo front

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.

Argus Pheasant Feathers

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2014

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2014

Roz Wade, Education and Outreach Officer, writes:

In a display case surrounded by the beautiful, the colourful and the peculiar of the bird world, mounted in a frame is a selection of feathers from a male Argus Pheasant (Argusianus argus). Unlike the shimmering green-blue of a Peacock’s tail, the beauty of the Argus Pheasant is a little more subtle. A dappled pattern of browns and beiges with highlights of off white and, on the larger feathers, a series of large spots perfectly shaded to appear three dimensional. These feathers are not just any Argus Pheasant feathers, but are from the feather collection of one Charles Darwin.

Darwin greatly admired the plumage of the male Argus Pheasant, as his description in his book “The Descent of Man” shows:

“The immensely developed secondary wing-feathers, which are confined to the male, are ornamented with a row of from twenty to twenty-three ocelli, each above an inch in diameter. The feathers are also elegantly marked with oblique dark stripes and rows of spots, like those on the skin of a tiger and leopard combined. The ocelli are so beautifully shaded that, as the Duke of Argyll remarks, they stand out like a ball lying loosely within a socket.”

These markings he described as more striking in the pose taken by the male while displaying to the female, where the feathers form a “grand, semi-circular upright fan”. These descriptions form evidence for Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection – the preference of females for mates with particular characteristics like the elaborate wing feathers and displays of the Argus Pheasant, and so driving the evolution of these traits (referred to as secondary sexual characteristics). Although you could be forgiven watching a video of a male Argus Pheasant like this one (from Arkive.org)

Argus Pheasant video

and thinking that it just makes the male look like a bit of a show off and the female is not at all impressed!

These feathers from Darwin’s feather collection are just one of the many treasures held by the Museum. Seeing something that Darwin saw, and reading his observations brings his work so much closer, a real proximity with the great man himself despite the many years between us. Spending time with specimens like these make coming into work at the Museum so exciting, and we want to share that with as many people as we can!

The Museum is going through a major redevelopment, but we need your help. Check out our website:


for information about our plans for the Museum. If you would like to help us to make it possible for more people to explore the wonders of the animal kingdom and experience a connection with great scientists from the past and today, please go to the University’s online giving page:


Any donation, however small, will help us to care for our fabulous collections, and display and interpret them in exciting new ways for audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

Thank you, and we hope to welcome you to a wonderful new Museum in 2016!

Wallace’s Bird of Paradise

Wallace's Bird of Paradise

Roz Wade, Education and Outreach 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.

Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus)

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Ten years ago, when I started my Museum career in Manchester Museum, I arrived at my desk one morning to find a friendly feathery green face staring at me. Bemused at what this strange taxidermied creature was I decided to do a little research.

What I was looking at was the world’s largest parrot, the Kakapo, also known as the Night Parrot. Flightless, bright green – almost embarassingly so – and native to New Zealand, the Kakapo is also one of the most endangered creatures on Earth. However, in its own way it has become a symbol of hope that, despite the damage we have done to our fellow inhabitants of this world, we are capable of change.

The Kakapo has suffered indirectly from human colonisation of New Zealand. Before humans arrived the only mammals in New Zealand were bats, but with our arrival came predatory mammals, especially cats and stoats. The Kakapo had evolved in an environment where it could afford to lose the ability to fly from danger, something which now made it extremely vulnerable.

Back in te 1830s another bird, the Great Auk, was thought to be extinct. The northern hemisphere’s equivalent of a penguin, the Great Auk had been found off the coast of Newfoundland, Iceland and even Scotland, but had been hunted to extinction – or so it was thought. In 1835 the world was given a second chance when a colony of nearly 50 Auks was discovered on a small island off the coast of Iceland. You would have thought that this would have been seen as a chance to preserve the species, but this was not to be. By 1844 the last Great Auk had been killed for, of all things, a collector of bird skins.

Some 130 years later and the world was beginning to think that the Kakapo too had been lost. But in 1977 an expedition to Stewart Island off the coast of New Zealand found a small population clinging on and at imminent risk of extinction by invasive cats. Instead of repeating the mistakes made with the Great Auk, some 65 birds were evacuated to predator-free islands. Since then a recovery programme has managed to increase the world’s Kakapo population to 124.

This may seem too few, and it is – Kakapo were once widespread across the whole of New Zealand – but they are difficult to breed. The good news is that through dedicated research, and the fact that Kakapo are very long lived (up to 80 years!) the numbers are slowly rising and plans are being made to expand their range in the future. Every six months or so I look up the Kakapo Recovery Programme and it’s been a delight to see the numbers slowly creep up over the last ten years.

The Museum has nine Kakapo skins and various bones, most of which came to the Museum at the end of the 19th Century. The Kakapo most visitors will have encountered is on display on the mezzanine level of the Museum and was donated by Baron von Hügel, the first Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology across the road.

So why is it one of my favourite animals in the Museum collection? Because it reminds me that the world has an almost limitless capacity to surprise. How was it that I had never heard of this slightly comical-looking, flightless, rotund but wonderful parrot? And what else will I discover and learn about the Museum’s collections?

Barnacles aren’t acorns

Barnacles and Kakapo

Goose Barnacles 2

Dr Beverley Glover, Director of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, writes:

You might not expect a botanist to have strong feelings about the collections in the Zoology Museum, but I’ve always believed that a good biologist doesn’t let a little matter of kingdom stand in the way of studying interesting organisms. I have 2 particular favourites that I like to visit from time to time. On the stairs, the kakapo (Strigops habroptila, or owl parrot) is something of an old friend. This New Zealand flightless parrot is critically endangered in the wild, prey to invasive predatory mammals such as cats and rats. As an undergraduate student at the University of St. Andrews I used to eat my sandwiches at lunchtime in the Bell Pettigrew Museum (their equivalent of our Zoology Museum), and I had a favourite spot next to the kakapo. When I moved to Cambridge I was really glad to find another specimen of my old friend here!

My other favourite is the display of barnacles. People don’t often think about barnacles – certainly I never had until I saw my first real live ones under a microscope on a field trip, for our first year Evolution and Behaviour class, that I was leading along with John Flowerdew from the Zoology Department. Barnacles look at first glance like just another gastropod mollusc, sitting on a rock under a shell. But in reality they are arthropods, members of the same class (the crustaceans) as crabs and lobsters. They have adopted a very specialist lifestyle, glueing their bodies to the rock at the head end, secreting calcareous plates around their body for defence, and waving their legs through the hole in the top of the shell to catch small particles of food in the water. The barnacle display in the museum showcases all this perfectly, with some closed up specimens of the very common acorn barnacle on a rock, a drawing showing how the animal looks magnified, and an especially clever display of the goose barnacle with the shell removed to display the animal inside. Barnacles always remind me that by thinking about the plants and animals around us from a fresh perspective we can develop some fantastic insights into the natural world.

Hawaiian Honeycreepers and O’os

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr Michael Brooke, Curator of Birds in the Museum of Zoology writes:

As Curator of Birds, I have the privilege of being able to pull open drawers of bird skins in the Bird Room. Yes, the birds may be a little fusty and smell of moth balls, yes, they may have evidently fallen off their perches – but how evocative! None more so than the drawers of Hawaiian birds, mostly collected around 140 years ago. Many of these are tiny red or yellow honeycreepers, jewels of the forest whose wild populations have drastically dwindled in the intervening years as avian malaria, arriving in the archipelago in the early part of the twentieth century, devastated the native birds of lowland Hawaii. In nearby drawers are examples of the now extinct species of o’o. Once upon a time, individual o’os were caught by native Hawaiians, plucked of the bright yellow feathers of the underwing, and released to fly another day. Then the o’os and honeycreepers were sufficiently abundant that they could supply an estimated 450,000 feathers for the ceremonial cloak of King Kamehameha. Today the o’os are gone but not forgotten. A recent DNA study, using specimens from the Museum, established that, while in appearance the birds seem close to the honeyeaters of Australia, they are actually allied to various North American birds.

I close the drawer and almost weep at what we have lost.

Archaeopteryx cast

Archaeopteryx cast

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Gillian Clarke, National Poet of Wales and Poet in Residence at the Museum of Zoology in Spring 2013, writes:

I am poet-in-residence in the Museum of Zoology for 10 precious days. In my first hour in the exhibition gallery I saw what is still my favourite treasure. It is the fossil of a bird, with a perfectly preserved impression made by its wing-feathers, like when you play ‘Making Angels’ in the snow, lying on your back and sweeping your arms to make wings. The Archaeopteryx is the earliest bird fossil, the size of the magpie that just left its impression in the snow on my lawn. The snow-shadow will melt. Stone has held the Archaeopteryx for millions of years, like a photograph of the Jurassic period. It makes me dizzy, just thinking about it.