600th Lecture by Sir David Attenborough

On 21st June the University of St Andrews had the pleasure of hosting a lecture by Sir David Attenborough entitled ‘Alfred Russell Wallace and the Birds of Paradise’. In this fascinating talk we heard how Wallace was the first European to study the flightless birds of paradise renowned for their strikingly colourful plumage.

Bird of Paradise in the University of St Andrews zoology collection

Museum Collections Unit cares for several important bird specimens collected by Wallace, which were acquired for the collections by marine biologist William Carmichael McIntosh. In his Brief Sketch of the Natural History Museum of the University of St Andrews(1913), William Carmichael McIntosh, Director of the Museum and Professor of Natural History (1882-1917) records that sometime after 1884: 

Dr Günther sent 46 most beautiful examples (from A.R. Wallace’s collections), including a fine Quetzal, Reeves’ Pheasant (male), various brightly coloured Pittas, parrots, pigeons, rifle-birds and birds of paradise, humming birds, and other striking species.

Dr Albert Günther was Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum, and brother-in-law to McIntosh, having married his sister Roberta in 1868. 

Quetzal collected by Alfred Russell Wallace

The collection includes this fantastic Quetzal, with its very long tail feathers. The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) was the sacred bird of the ancient Mayas and Incas who prized its long, iridescent tail feathers for dress and decoration. Despite being revered throughout South America, the survival of the quetzal is still far from secure and the species appears on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.
 

Great Pitta, which can be identified as being from the collection of Alfred Russell Wallace from McIntosh's description of the 46 birds which came to the University of St Andrews

All three specimens here are on display in MUSA for a few weeks in celebration of Sir David Attenborough’s visit to St Andrews. Following this the Quetzal will be returned to its home at the Bell Pettigrew Museum, where visitors can enjoy our Victorian Natural History collections. For anyone who missed the lecture, there is a video available on the University website.

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