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Natural History Museum and David Attenborough collaborate on Attenborough’s Wonder of Eggs

This Easter, Sir David Attenborough is one of the many naturalists to use the Museum’s world-leading ornithology collections to trace the journey of eggs. 

The documentary follows the story of eggs from formation to hatching, and their importance to science today for the BBC Natural World documentary Attenborough’s Wonder of Eggs.

Sir David investigates the role museum collections have in helping understand eggshell thinning caused by our abuse of the environment, through to new research at the Museum on the eggs of the most iconic of our lost birds, the great auk, Pinguinus impennis.

Speaking from the collection at the Natural Museum at Tring, Attenborough explains how a ground-breaking collaboration between experts at the Museum at South Kensington and the University of Sheffield successfully micro-CT scanned three eggs of the great auk for the first time, to compare in unprecedented 3D detail the microstructure of their eggshells with that of their living relatives in order to gain new insight into their biology.

Custom-built cases, created from 3D prints of the specimens themselves, were developed to handle and protect three of the Museum’s 200-250 year old great auk egg specimens. This unique system successfully protected these extremely fragile eggs throughout dozens of scans, across an extensive six month period. This ongoing research into the shape, colour and structure of the eggs is piecing together undiscovered aspects of this remarkable, extinct bird.

Douglas Russell, Senior Curator of Birds’ Eggs and Nests at the Natural History Museum says: ‘Our ability to research and understand breeding ecology, distribution of bird populations and major changes in the environment using these collections is growing all the time. Digitisation to increase access to collections and the development of new imaging and analysis techniques have opened up new avenues of research. The stories covered in Attenborough's Wonder of Eggs, clearly show the importance of historical egg collections to science and society has never been greater.’

Professor Tim Birkhead of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, the University of Sheffield says: ‘Working with the egg collections at Natural History Museum and on the great auk eggs in particular was a wonderful privilege. Having studied the guillemot and razorbill, both close cousins of the great auk, for over forty years, I felt a very special connection to the great auk. In addition, the fact that the great auk is now extinct is a powerful signal of the vulnerability of our bird populations.’

The Museum holds several hundred thousand clutches of eggs, making it amongst the most important and comprehensive research archives of avian eggshell on Earth with more than 200 years-worth of samples from nearly 5000 species. Researchers from all around the world use the collection each year to learn how and where birds live and breed. Every birds' egg is a self-contained life support system which protects and nourishes new life, yet there is spectacular diversity among the thousands of birds in the world today, and the eggs they lay.

Throughout this hour-long feature, produced by Mike Birkhead Associates, Sir David Attenborough explorers the Museum’s oology collection to examine specimens and discover what they have taught us about past and present bird populations, breeding ecology and the evolution of species.

Notes for editors

Media contacts:

Natural History Museum:

Tel: +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/+44 (0)7799 690151

Email: press@nhm.ac.uk

The University of Sheffield

Professor Tim R Birkhead FRS

Tel: +44 (0)114 222 4622

Email: t.r.birkhead@sheffield.ac.uk

Duncan Jackson

Email djackson3@sheffield.ac.uk

Media team: +44 (0)114 222 1047

Email: mediateam@sheffield.ac.uk

  • The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity. The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.
  • The Natural History Museum at Tring in Hertfordshire opened in the late 1800s to house the collections of Lionel Walter, second Lord Rothschild, and offers some outstanding examples of nineteenth-century taxidermy. The Museum was bequeathed to the nation and became part of the Natural History Museum in 1938. The public galleries were modernised but the fascinating character of the Museum has been retained. Around 140,000 visitors a year enjoy a glimpse into the fascinating world of a Victorian collector, where they can see a huge variety of wild, weird and wonderful specimens from across the animal kingdom – from armadillos to zebras. The site at Tring also houses the stunning Rothschild Library and the Natural History Museum’s ornithological collection, which has been cased there since the early 1970s. Access to the Rothschild Library and ornithological collection is limited and by appointment only.
  • With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities. A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines. Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in. Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2017 and was voted number one university in the UK for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education in 2014. In the last decade it has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life. Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields. Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

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