The Bell Pettigrew Museum: A Victorian Natural History Museum

Have you ever seen the wonders of the Bell Pettigrew Museum? Collections Trainee, Louise Hanwright takes you through some of the highlights of this highly praised collection.

As we’ve closed MUSA’s doors until Autumn 2019 we think it would be a good time to share some of the “treasures and wonders” of the Bell Pettigrew Museum. The Bell Pettigrew Museum is the natural history museum that the University of St Andrews Museum Collections Unit cares for, and it is located in the Bute Building in St Mary’s Quadrangle on South Street. You can visit the Bell Pettigrew Museum on Tuesday and Friday afternoons where you will be welcomed by the friendly MUSA staff!

At the Bell Pettigrew we have a number of rare and extinct animals. It is crucial that we safeguard these specimens for any potential research opportunities. Respecting the museum by only consuming water and monitoring the environmental conditions, means that the specimens stand a better chance of maintaining their good condition. We wanted to share a few of the interesting oddities in the collection with you and hope that you come and study them yourselves.


Starting small, we have the St Kilda House Mouse (Mus musculus muralis). This specimen was found on the remote St Kilda archipelago off northwest Scotland, 41 miles west of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides. It is thought that St Kilda was first inhabited about 4000-5000 years ago due to the presence of stone tools and the common house mouse was most likely established in human spaces at that time. The St Kilda Mouse, now extinct, evolved from these introduced mice. It was larger than the common house mouse and is an example of the phenomenon of island gigantism. The human population of St Kilda fell to 36 individuals in 1930 and they requested to be evacuated. After 8 years of survival the St Kilda Mouse became extinct because of their reliance on human habitation for food.


The Resplendent Quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) is found at high altitudes in Central American cloud forests and is extremely rare. The great taxonomist Albert Günther , who was Keeper of Zoology at the Natural History Museum in Kensington, presented the striking specimen to the Bell Pettigrew Museum. Spotting the difference between male and female quetzals is simple because during breeding season the males grow a pair of tail feathers that can be 1 metre in length. Sadly, due to their beautifully coloured feathers, quetzals are hunted resulting in a severe decline in numbers and this is not helped by a continued loss of their cloud forest habitat. It is almost impossible to keep a quetzal in captivity as they tend to die quite quickly upon capture and for this reason, quetzals are used as a symbol of liberty in the Americas.


Moving to the other side of the world across Australia and New Guinea is where one would have found the Thylacine or Tasmanian wolf/tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus). Thylacines were the world’s largest marsupial predator, but their numbers went into decline with the arrival of humans 40,000 years ago. By the time Europeans arrived the Thylacine was extinct in New Guinea, almost entirely eradicated from Australia and was largely confined to the island of Tasmania. Due to issues with sheep farming, the Tasmanian government introduced a bounty of £1 for every Thylacine killed with the last recorded wild Thylacine being shot in 1930. The last captive Thylacine died in 1936 in Hobart Zoo and despite being quite a common animal at one time, little is known about the biology of this fascinating animal. Despite almost certainly being extinct, there have been numerous reported sightings of ‘dog-like creatures’ in Australia and in September 2016 a team of British investigators from the Centre for Fortean Zoology released a video of a potential Thylacine sighting in Adelaide.

Our natural habitat is important to both our health and the welfare of wild animals and is important that we educate ourselves and respect the environment we live in. By protecting landscapes across the world we can hope to save more creatures from extinction. There are links at the bottom of this page that will provide further information on wildlife conservation if you would like to help or learn more, or indeed feel free to share your own!

The Bell Pettigrew Museum is a fantastic place where you can learn about a variety of wildlife both great and small – and everything in between. But we don’t need to tell you how great it is; Sir David Attenborough visited in 2011 and commented: Packed full of treasures and wonders, the Bell Pettigrew is a spectacular reminder of how important a museum can be in the study of the natural sciences”. It is truly a fascinating collection of specimens that will interest both the natural history expert and the novice! Whether you’d like to study, draw or just admire the animals we think the Bell Pettigrew Museum is well worth a visit and we’d love to see you there!


Useful links:

British Wildlife Centre:

Fife Coast & Countryside Trust:

The National Trust:

The National Trust for Scotland – Get Involved:

Scottish Wildlife Trust – Fife and Kinross:

World Wildlife Fund:

St Kilda Mouse research:

Resplendant Quetzal status:

Thylacine sightings:



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