Skin collection

The Museum's avian skin collection is one of the two largest collections of its kind in the world, with almost 750,000 specimens representing about 95 per cent of the world’s extant bird species.

Specimens are still being added to our huge collection today, but the majority date from the early-to-mid-1800s through to the mid-to-late-1900s. Some of the oldest skins date back to Captain James Cook’s epic voyages of discovery in the 1770s. 

Pioneering expeditions

Skins in the collection were collected during expeditions including:

  • the Antarctic voyages of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (1839-1843) under James Clark Ross
  • the voyage of HMS Rattlesnake to northern Australia and New Guinea (1846-1850) under Captain Owen Stanley
  • the Zambezi expedition (1858-1864) of David Livingstone
  • the voyage of the Southern Cross, the first expedition to overwinter on the Antarctic continent, under Carsten Borchgrevink (1898-1900).

The skin collection houses the largest single collection of bird type specimens in the world, relating to more than 8,000 named taxa. It also includes a significant number of extinct and endangered species, many of which were obtained while the species were still relatively common.

The extent of the collection means it is one of the most heavily used of all the zoological collections in the Museum. Every year, nearly 400 researchers from around the world visit it for a wide variety of purposes. 

Research using the collection

Researchers visit the collections to examine the skin and plumage of the specimens, analyse the data on when and where specimens were collected and remove tiny samples from specimens for molecular analysis.