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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.
Natural History Museum:
Tel: +44 (0) 20 7942 5654/+44 (0)7799 690151
The University of Sheffield
Professor Tim R Birkhead FRS
Tel: +44 (0)114 222 4622
Media team: +44 (0)114 222 1047