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.



Orca SkullCarl Chapman, Norfolk Cetacean Recorder writes:

Sat in the repository of the Museum of Zoology is a box. It’s not an unusual box, nor is it very large. It’s much like any of the many thousands of others in the building. In the box is a little lady. For the moment let’s call her C.95.G. Not a catchy name by any standards but it’s the only one she has ever had. Her providence unknown; all that is attributed to her is she heralded from the coast at Great Yarmouth over a century ago. Pretty she isn’t; but beauty is always in the eye of the beholder.

Some months ago I acquired a book. Arthur H Patterson wrote ‘Notes of an East Coast Naturalist’ in 1904. The book was written by this amateur naturalist in a time when collecting was done with a gun rather than careful observation. On page 271 sandwiched between notes on Mole behaviour and observations on Toads is trapped a story; the story of our little lady.

Arthur Patterson was taking a walk along the quay at Great Yarmouth on the cold morning of the 14th November 1894 when he saw something that grabbed his interest; a seven foot 5 inch Grampus. A Grampus was a seafaring name formerly applied to any small whale or large dolphin. The Grampus was being exhibited by two quiet, well behaved fishermen that had dragged the carcass from Lowestoft after it had been caught offshore in a Herring drifters net. They were apparently doing good business from their impromptu exhibition. Cetaceans always carry an enigma that is difficult for the public to resist.

It was four days later Arthur Patterson purchased a similar Grampus on the fish wharf in Great Yarmouth. This animal was similar in every regard to the first, but two inches shorter. It could be said they were peas in a pod! Patterson took the Grampus by horse and cart to Norwich Museum where it arrived on the 20th and was inspected by Thomas Southwell a noted Naturalist of the day. Southwell’s description within the transactions of the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society accurately describe a very young female Orca. The cadaver was however deemed too abraded to be of use as an exhibit at the museum.

A telegram was sent to Dr S F Harmer at the University Museum of Cambridge and at his request the Orca was despatched to Cambridge. Dr Harmer found the teeth had not yet been cut but they could be plainly felt in the upper jaw and there was no solid food content in the stomach. This animal had not yet been weaned.

So the flesh was stripped and the bones crated and until this month that’s where our little lady lay.

Grampus has been incorporated into the nomenclature of Risso’s Dolphin (Grampus griseus) and indeed until the description within the transactions was uncovered, given the small size of both animals, it was thought Pattersons’s notes could have referred to that species.

These records constitute the first (so far) occurrence of Orca for both Norfolk and Suffolk.

Thanks to Matt Lowe, Collections Manager at the University Museum of Zoology for allowing access to photograph C.95.G and to his kind and considerate staff for their attentions and help during my visit.

Chamaeleo vulgaris skeleton

Chamaeleon skeleton

Stuart Turner, Museum Assistant, writes:

The Museum is rather busy at the moment due to the refurbishment and one of the plethora of jobs I’ve been doing recently was attaching bar-codes, to help us to identify & locate individual items, on the many hundreds of crates containing packed spirit specimens.

As I was doing this I noticed the top half of “Chamaeleo vulgaris” and thought to myself ‘what fine preparation and presentation work this specimen has, it’s bound to be a “Fric.”’ Lifting it up, revealed the “V. Fric. Bohemia, Prague” label, and I knew my observations were correct. In fact, any of these specimens are easy to spot from a distance, even with my eyesight, as they are expertly produced. I really need to get some new glasses soon!

I was first introduced to one of the “Fric” specimens about 15 years ago by my colleagues-Ray and Ann, during my first run of topping up the alcohol specimens in the spirit store, so I can take none of the credit for discovering them! I have been (almost!) annually topping up the store since then- for many years with Ann and the last approximately seven years I’ve been going it alone and even though I had time constraints I still had time to admire the hidden gems that are the the “Frics” as I was working my way round.

I have often wondered about the history of V. Fric and the specimens he created and until now have never actually looked him up! This is a brief summary of his life and work:

Vaclav Fric was born in Prague in 1839 and he was a Natural history dealer and Naturalist who after training in taxidermy and chemistry decided to open a shop (in 1862) supplying zoological, botanical and mineral specimens (Worldwide) following a visit to his brother in London(in 1859-60) and seeing/being inspired by museum collections there. He exhibited his wares in many a World fair, not to mention other trade fairs and received various medals for his work.

All of his different shops were located on a street called Wassergasse (past) or Vodickova (present) in Prague, it was said that these shops were like museums and became visitor attractions. Vaclav passed away in 1916 and his son continued the business until the last shop finally closed in 1958.

The remainder of the specimens were donated to the National Museum in Prague.

I would love to have a time machine so I could travel back to late 19th century Prague, and visit one of his museum shops. Alas, since that is not possible, I will have to try and visit the National Museum in modern day Prague to see if there are any hidden Fric specimens!


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.

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.

Saving the Whale – for the next generation of museum visitors

In Part 2 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Nigel Larkin, natural history conservator (www.natural-history-conservation.com) writes:

It’s not every day that I get asked to consider taking on a specimen as big as a 70 foot-long articulated Finback Whale skeleton. For instance next week I’ll be cleaning, conserving and remounting a mole skeleton a few inches long, then a porpoise skeleton about 3 feet long. Last week I was conserving, repairing and remounting a five-foot long ichthyosaur skeleton and that was big enough (see: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/norfolkichthyosaur.htm). Those are fairly normal weeks for me. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. There were also several other interesting aspects to the Finback Whale project. Not only is this particular whale skeleton apparently the largest example known of its species which is the second largest species of any animal alive on the planet today (second only to the Blue Whale) but it is an iconic landmark in Cambridge city centre and therefore was well loved and was on the regular tourist trail of quirky things you must see when in town (so it is of great local interest). The skeleton is also about 150 years old (therefore it is fragile) and the animal was a celebrity in its day (meaning it is historically important) as it made newspaper headlines around the country when thousands of people visited it when it was washed up on a beach in Sussex in 1865. In fact 40,000 people are estimated to have made the trip to view it on the beach during the first few days of its stranding – so many that a new railway station was specifically built as near to the beached animal as possible. For more information about the animal’s life and death, see: http://www.museum.zoo.cam.ac.uk/collections.archives/collections/recent.vertebrates/finback.whale/


But not only is this one of the largest skeletons you’ll ever see (bigger than most dinosaurs!), and an icon of the city with historic associations, its current display situation was quite unique as well: for the last 17 years it had been hanging suspended outside Cambridge University’s Museum of Zoology, enticing visitors in to see the rest of the collection (comprising about 4 million specimens). This did mean, however, that many generations of pigeons had bred, hatched, lived and died on and within the specimen. Open to the elements, some of the metalwork was rusty but the specimen looked sound, as well as impressively large.

So, when I was asked to assess the specimen’s condition and to provide some ideas as to how it might be safely dismantled, cleaned and temporarily stored for the duration of the current refurbishment project before re-mounting in the new foyer, was I daunted? Well, no. I love a challenge. And it wasn’t going to be a particularly novel task. It’s fair to say that I don’t normally have to remove quite such large amounts of bird droppings from the skeletons I usually work on, but the processes required for the project as a whole would just be scaled-up versions of many other projects I had undertaken over the years. In fact it would be very similar to a project I had organised in 2009, when responsible for excavating and lifting a fragile 6,000 year old whale skeleton almost identical in size but buried in sandy sediments in Abu Dhabi (you can read about that expedition here: http://www.natural-history-conservation.com/adwhaleskull.htm). Many of the techniques used in that project would clearly come in useful.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the state of the bones, and assess their supporting metalwork and all the baleen hanging from the skull (the baleen is the keratinous material in the mouth that the animal used to filter-feed when alive).Larkinblog2They had to be studied and their status recorded in some detail as the condition of all of these elements would determine exactly how I would tackle the project. This enabled me to devise an appropriate plan of action for cleaning the bones, the baleen and the metalwork, and to make a written and photographic record of every element (as we will have to put it all back together again in a few years!). I also had to plan how to label and dismantle it all and pack it away for storage for a few years. Access to the bones was going to be a problem, as many of them were a couple of metres or more in the air, and the pigeon droppings were actually quite a significant biohazard risk. But appropriate scaffolding and scaffolding towers could be sourced and we devised risk assessments for every possible activity and took appropriate precautions. One of the main elements of the assessment phase was to figure out exactly what tools and materials we would need and in what quantities. I also had to work out how long it would all take and ultimately how much it would probably cost so that funding could be allocated appropriately.


Work started in September 2013. After recording exactly how the skeleton was put together on the supporting metalwork, every single bone was cleaned very carefully before being removed, using brushes and a vacuum cleaner to remove as much dirt and pigeon faeces as possible (whilst wearing disposable gloves, dust masks and goggles. It was photographed and labelled with its individual bone number and its orientation before being removed from the metalwork. All the metalwork was photographed and labelled as well. Only then was the bone very carefully removed and the next stage of cleaning undertaken. The bones were swabbed with Synperonic A7 (a special detergent used in museums) diluted with water, one small area at a time, and patted dry with lint-free paper towels.  Then to clean the detergent off this small area would be swabbed with water, dried, then swabbed with water and dried again. All metalwork was removed and cleaned with a spinning wire brush, then painted with ‘direct to rust’ metal paint.


Larkinblog5The bones were packed way in standard museum ‘archival media’ (inert storage products that last for decades and don’t damage the specimens by giving off harmful chemicals) such as acid-free tissue paper and Plastazote foam. We had to build bespoke wooden crates for the baleen to be stored in and make large shelving units for the largest bones to be stored on (the ribs alone are about 6 feet long).

In the end we undertook the whole project just within the time I judged it might take (about 60 person days) and well within budget (I’m not going to tell you). And not a single item was damaged in the process, despite the bones being very fragile, large and awkward, despite a single element of the metal supporting structure weighing about 170 kilos (we used pulleys to lower it) and despite having to move the skull and lower jaw which weighed a ton and half. This latter task was even more difficult than you might initially think: the 5 metre-long skull and lower jaw (like all the bones) were hanging from the ceiling and we had to transfer the weight carefully, slowly and evenly so that it was supported from below instead, yet the skull was extremely brittle as well as astonishingly heavy. We built a rigid, strong, supportive and protective metal cage around it so that we could manoeuvre it from its original position and into a nearby purpose-built shed with a crane.


 Matt Lowe, the Museum’s very efficient Collections Manager, has written a blog of how the project went from his perspective. You can read it here: http://camunivmuseums.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/a-whales-tail/

None of this could have been achieved safely or within time or budget without help from the multi-talented Phil Rye, the ever-resourceful Matt Lowe and a bunch of brilliant and amazingly stoical volunteers, particularly Ilanith Pongolini.Cleaning and packing up this iconic specimen was just the start of a truly gargantuan project. This might be a particularly large and problematic individual skeleton, but it is just one of many museum objects with special needs: another 4 million specimens will be assessed, cleaned, recorded and packed over the next year, ready to be moved in to their new stores (you can see some examples below). A small army of staff and volunteers are beavering away behind the scenes every day. The museum may be closed for a couple of years but it is a hive of activity. To read more about the project or watch videos, select from the following:

The Zoology Museum project in the news:



Working on other whale skeletons in the Zoology Museum:


Something else a little awkward to clean and pack: A stuffed orang-utan sitting in a fragile nest of twigs leaves:


Finback Whale, Balaenoptera physalus


In Part 1 of the tale of the Museum’s iconic Finback Whale, Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, writes of his experiences installing this enormous skeleton above the Museum’s entrance:

The history of what has come to be known as ‘The Cambridge Whale’ has been dealt with in detail in a number of articles over recent years, and there is a number of web sites that catalogue various aspects of its history and biology. In this short account I give a small personal perspective of a period when the whale was, inevitably, an obsession for me (and we all know what happened to Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab).

As I write, the whale is not visible. Now, it takes quite an effort to hide such an object, and it is a tribute to the efforts of the current Collections Manager, Matt Lowe, and the conservator, Nigel Larkin, who was specially commissioned for the task, that it has been dismantled and put into storage on site, to await its (doubtless triumphant) redisplay in a new position in 2016.

As a brief recap for those new to the saga, the whale came ashore dead at Pevensey, in East Sussex, in November 1865. After a period of viewing, both in situ and on tour, the prepared skeleton was bought for the University Museum of Zoology by public subscription. The supporting iron framework was made especially in the University workshops (well, surprisingly, you can’t buy these things off the shelf) and was used to display the skeleton in the old University Museum of Zoology.

A Photos Old Museum - Museum with Clark bust

The old Museum was a wooden building (that by the time of its demolition in 1965 had developed some heroic leaks) and the whale was mounted on pillars that stood on the floor of the Museum. Consequently, one of the major problems to be solved in the remounting was that its new home allowed only for hanging from above. The New Museum was finished in 1970, but it was not until 1997 that the skeleton was revealed again to visitors. It rapidly became a familiar Cambridge landmark, suspended over the glazed entrance foyer to the New Museum.

That straightforward and unemotional description of events hides, of course, a very great deal of the story. At various times the movement,  transport, cleaning and conservation of the skeleton has involved a large cast of people. On an early, foggy, morning for example, when the crane we had hired lifted the skull as far as it could, it took a team of 20 only partly convinced recruits from the Department of Zoology bodily to lift the skull and carry it up steps to close to its final position for reassembly. This was after Ann Charlton, on the Museum staff, had cleaned the skull (at times using a toothbrush to cover what must have seemed like acres of bone). But the reassembly mostly fell to three of us: Ray Symonds, Michael (‘Mick’) Ashby, and myself. We are now, all three, retired. Ray and Mick brought high levels of all sorts of skills to the job, and I brought – well, a lot of optimism.

Things did not always go smoothly. At one point, when the completed skeleton was hanging from a series of nylon ropes, there was a major fire on the floor above. I came screaming in fully expecting that the ropes would have melted in the heat, and the shattered skeleton would be waiting for me on the bricks below. The fire brigade had, however, very sensibly damped down the ropes and the skeleton, so no damage had been done. The firemen were very amused at my concerns that the skeleton had got so wet: ‘but it’s a whale’, they reasoned, ‘it must be used to it’.

Then there was the matter of the chain hoists, for example. These were crucial to the rehang, because they enabled us to transfer the skeleton from those nylon ropes to the steel cables, made one by one, precisely to size, by the ever obliging Mackays (who contributed other elements of metal work for the project). The trouble was that chain hoists for hire were in rather short supply locally. Eventually we had just one left to obtain and it was found in a local scrap yard that was guarded by two large dogs who had regarded the heaped chains as something to aim at. It was that or nothing, so pre-preparation involved some liberal use of disinfectants before the hoist could be safely deployed. We agreed that these little things were sent to try us.

We got through largely without injury. The ‘largely’ there does, however, hide a few Minor Incidents. The reassembly was carried out behind a boarding screen (this was in part so that I was not visible looking pathetically at the work thus far, and all too obviously wondering how on earth we were going to do the next bit). Two large doors had been made for access (like everything else to do with the project, they just had to be large). When the moment came to pull up the central steel beam we used a rope and block and tackle that had been in the Museum since around the time of Nelson: it broke. The three of us took off with the broken end and burst backwards through the wooden door like cowboys in a bar room brawl. Words were said about how you couldn’t rely on things to last these days.

It really was blood, sweat and tears. Mostly the first two, at least in public. In fact there was a supremely emotional moment for me. On the day that all the hoarding came down and the completed skeleton was exposed to view for the first time in so many years, I was walking off the site to go home – exhausted, but very pleased and happy. As I came out through the narrow archway onto Downing Street, I looked back under the arch – and there it was! Even more satisfying was the elderly gentleman with two shopping bags coming down the street on the opposite side of the road. He must have done the trip a thousand times. As he drew level with the archway he glanced sideways and back. And then he did a double take, put the bags down on the pavement and stared. Yes, I thought: we’ve done it.

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!