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Bird collection fraud

17 November 2005

New research shows that a bird collection at the Natural History Museum contains many fraudulent specimens and labels.

Specimens from the Meinertzhagen bird collection.

Specimens from the Meinertzhagen bird collection.

The Meinertzhagen collection contains nearly 20,000 bird specimens, given to the Natural History Museum by Richard Meinertzhagen before he died in 1967.

Examining the collection

Using a combination of historical reconstruction and modern analytical techniques such as X-rays, Robert Prys-Jones, Head of Zoology's Bird Group at the Museum, and Pamela Rasmussen, formerly at the Smithsonian Institution and now at Michigan State University, carried out a detailed examination of the data and specimens in the collection.

Geographical implications

Results from the research show for example that two specimens of the scarce and little-known Blyth's kingfisher ,Alcedo hercules, that Meinertzhagen claimed to have collected from Burma were, in fact, from China.

The two specimens had very different styles of taxidermy preparation, as though they had been prepared by different people, so this raised suspicions.

Research discovered that each specimen belonged to different collectors, one identical to a specimen that was missing from a Whitehead collection held at the Museum, and the other from an Owston collection now at the American Museum of Natural History, both collected in Hainan, China.

Disguising a bird's true origin

Using detailed examination and forensic tests, another example found that Meinertzhagen had remade an exceptionally rare forest owlet ,Heteroglaux blewitti, specimen to disguise its true origin.

This specimen was one of only seven of the species in existence and was identified as a J. Davidson specimen stolen from the Natural History Museum, now finally reunited with its original data. Also this investigation led directly to the rediscovery of the forest owlet alive in the wild, 113 years after the last reliable record.

Unauthorised removal from the Museum

Meinertzhagen was born in 1878 and was a regular visitor to the Natural History Museum. Meinertzhagen had in fact been banned from the Museum's Bird Room for 18 months for unauthorised removal of specimens. Museum documents spanning the next 30 years contain numerous references to suspicions by staff that he was stealing both specimen and library material; twice these reached the verge of prosecution.

Some senior ornithologists had obviously become suspicious but it was only 17 years after Meinertzhagen's death that people began to publish literature drawing attention to the flawed nature of his collection.

Genuine specimens

Apart from the frauds, Meinertzhagen's collection does also contain many important and genuine specimens, including some type specimens (the original specimen used to describe a new species) such as his type series of Afghan snowfinch,Montifringilla theresae. Meinertzhagen discovered the species in 1937 and the specimens have all the hallmarks of authenticity.

The Bird Group is looked after at the Natural History Museum at Tring

Further Information

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