By Bonnie Griffin, Natural History Curator
I’m delighted to announce that a penguin collected on Captain Scott’s fateful Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913) has been unearthed in the Natural History collection at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery.
My volunteer team and I were digitising a small part of the foreign bird collections when we noticed a Gentoo penguin that looked a little fishy!
Gentoo penguins have a distinctive white ‘bonnet’ and a bright orange bill. Our penguin had a fully black head and a distinctive ring of short feathers that covered half of its red bill.
A quick check in our Birds of the World atlas confirmed our suspicions. We actually had an Adélie penguin on our hands. Adélie penguins came to fame as the charmingly naughty ‘criminal penguins’ whose stone-stealing antics were narrated by Sir David Attenborough in Frozen Planet.
This re-identification was great news for the Natural History department as this is the only Adélie in the collection. Our penguins and seabird collection have been part of international research by Dr Ali Altamirano, who discovered the fossil of a huge 5ft penguin in Argentina.
As our collection is so important for research, its key that we gather as much information about the specimen as possible.
We double checked the penguin for any other identifying marks which might tell us more about the specimen. We found faint numbers 94/1949 written in pencil, barely visible on the dark wooden base.
This number was the key to solving our penguin puzzle and led us to its donation record from 1949 by Mrs Irving-Bell:
Adelie Penguin Pygosceles adeliae “Terra Nova” expedition to the South Pole. Obtained by Asst. Paymaster Francis R.H. Drake, R.N. on Capt. Scott’s Last Expedition 1910-1912.
This was incredible news and an amazing discovery, unknown until now! We were all very humbled by this little guy. Over 100 years old and he has such incredible provenance – as a specimen from one of the most famous and tragic expeditions of all time.
With just 5% of the collection digitised, who knows what other incredible stories are waiting to be discovered in this unique and wonderful collection!