J. Emperor penguin egg

Emperor penguin egg (Aptenodytes forsteri) collected on Scott’s last expedition to the Antarctic, 1911.

A broken dream

Photograph of Captain Scott writing in his diary.

Captain Scott (1868–1912) writing in his diary in the Antarctic Cape Evans base camp.

This egg is one of only three fresh eggs collected by Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to Antarctica. It was hoped that the embryo inside would confirm a link between reptiles and birds.

A dual mission

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)

Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri)

The main goal of Scott’s expedition from 1910 to 1913 was to be the first to reach the South Pole. But there was another less well-known mission: to collect as much scientific data as possible from the frozen continent.

Edward Wilson, the expedition’s chief scientist, particularly wanted to test the theory that studying emperor penguin embryos would show an evolutionary link between birds and reptiles.

Bitter endurance

Photograph of Bowers, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard before departure.

Bowers, Wilson and Cherry-Garrard before departure.

Emperor penguins live only in Antarctica, and they lay eggs in the dead of winter. In 1911, Wilson, his assistant Apsley Cherry-Garrard and Henry Bowers left the base to walk a punishing 100 kilometres to the only breeding colony known at the time.

For five painful weeks they pulled heavy sledges in complete darkness at -40˚C. Never before had anyone travelled in such bitter cold.

Worst journey

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard just returned to base.

Wilson, Bowers and Cherry-Garrard just returned to base.

With great difficulty they collected five eggs, putting them inside their mittens for safety. Two broke on the trek back.

In his book, The Worst Journey in the World, Cherry-Garrard told the harrowing tale of how their bodies shook so violently from the cold they thought their bones would break. It is now ranked among the greatest travel books ever written.

Awaiting examination

Photograph of embryo thin section.

Two of the three embryos were cut into thin sections and mounted onto 800 slides.

The three surviving eggs were carefully cut open and the embryos removed and pickled. Back in Britain they were sliced and mounted onto slides. Study of the specimens was delayed by the First World War and the death of Richard Ashton, the specialist embryologist assigned to analyse them.

Missing link?

Pencil drawings of an embryo before sectioning.

Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s (colleague of embryologist Ashton) pencil drawings of an embryo before sectioning.

Between collecting the eggs and their eventual study in 1934, science moved on and the theory of a link between an organism’s embryo development and its evolutionary history had been rejected. The embryos did not provide good evidence for the link between birds and reptiles after all.

A tragic end

Snow cairn marking the graves of Scott, Bowers and Wilson.

Snow cairn marking the graves of Scott, Bowers and Wilson.

Wilson and Bowers were selected to travel with Scott’s party for the final push to the South Pole in early 1912. The following November, a search party found the three men dead having been beaten to the pole by their Norwegian competitors and trapped by a storm. Their journals revealed how Edgar Evans and Lawrence Oates had perished earlier on the journey back.

A scientific legacy

Photograph

The expedition’s scientific work laid the foundations for Antarctic science, alongside expeditions by other nations. Antarctica still attracts researchers from around the world using Scott's expedition work as baseline data. This egg may not have proved a scientific breakthrough, but it is a fragile symbol of the quest for knowledge.

Around the Museum

Photograph of penguin egg.

Bigger than a rugby ball and smaller than a grape, compare the size of bird eggs in the Birds gallery, in the Green Zone.