Friday, 10 April 2009

A Darwinian Easter egg

"An egg collected by Charles Darwin during his voyage on HMS Beagle has been rediscovered at Cambridge University." - BBC News

You may ask what kind of bird lays that kinder egg? (And is the toy inside a bit of a yolk?)

So I tried to find out.

News reports say the egg's origin was traced back to a friend and contemporary of Darwin's, Alfred Newton, a Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge. His notes reveal:
"One egg, received through Frank Darwin, having been sent to me by his father who said he got it at Maldonado (Uruguay) and that it belonged to the Common Tinamou of those parts."
Frank Darwin was, I guess, Francis Darwin, Charles' third son, who received the egg from his father and passed it to Newton for the collection at Cambridge, where it lay in obscurity till earlier this year.

Now, the tinamous are a large family of South American birds with 47 recognised species, though none are called the 'Common Tinamou'. There is a tinamou named Dawin's Nothura, Nothura darwinii, but this is an Andean species and not from Uruguay where the egg was collected.

The Tinamou Research Group website notes two Uruguayan species: the Red-winged Tinamou, Rhynchotus rufescens, and the smaller Spotted Tinamou, Nothura maculosa. The video in the BBC report shows two rather moth-eaten museum bird specimens and doesn't identify them, but the Spotted Tinamou seems to match well in size and colouration.

Nothura maculosa. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The eggs too match with Darwin's:

Nothura maculosa - eggs. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

At the Internet Bird Collection you can watch a couple of videos of Spotted Nothura, and at the foot of that page is a recording of it's song. The BBC quote from Darwin's notes that the bird had a "high shrill chirp". Ear piercing I would have said.

So have I identified the correct species? I don't know, I'm not an ornithologist and comments are welcome. Seeing as how they went to the trouble of videoing the museum specimens, the BBC could have identified it and saved all the hassle but then I may not have had such an enjoyable, two-cup coffee break this morning.

Happy Easter!


NobblySan said...

No wonder the tinamou seems a touch wide eyed and startled - those eggs look remarkably like aubergines!

Andy Holroyd said...

It's the kiwi I feel sympathy for:

"Although the kiwi is about the size of a domestic chicken, it is able to lay eggs that are about six times the size of a chicken's egg."

NobblySan said...

I often wondered why the NZ cricket team always looked so bloody miserable.