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The Species Seekers Quiz: What Lies Beneath the Lid? Love or Loss

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2012

British naturalist William J. Burchell found something astounding when he took the lid off his collection of vultures.  What was it?

1.  A new type of Silphidae, or carrion beetle.

2.  A skull and bones.

3.  An egg in a vulture’s stomach.

4.  A love letter from the woman who had spurned him.

And the answer is:

A skull and bones.  (Sorry, all you romantics, there’s a love story about Burchell in The Species Seekers, but not today.)

During his travels in southern Africa from 1811 to 1815, Burchell collected 265 bird species, many of them new to science. But like many other collectors, he came unstuck over the challenge of dealing with his treasures once he got home. In 1819, four years after his return, he confessed to a friend:

“The collection of birds which I made during my travels in Africa has always remained packed up in the chests, nor have I yet been able to get any of them stuffed. The chief reason for which is that they would take up much more room than I have at present in my power to allow them. They have indeed never yet been all seen by any person since my arrival in England.”

He was immobilized by the fear of decay:

“I am obliged, in order to secure them from moths and other insects, to keep them so pasted up that I have not myself any access to them, but intend to keep them in this state till I begin to work at the ornithological part of my collection.”

Then in 1834, another African traveller, Eduard Rüppell, visited the British Museum and persuaded one of the young keepers there, John E. Gray, to take him to see Burchell’s collection.  Burchell was deeply reluctant, and ultimately unable, to open his carefully sealed boxes.

So Gray and Rüppell came back a few days later, “provided with a hammer and chisel to prevent a recurrence of the same difficulty. Mr. Burchell laughed at our persistence and agreed to our opening the box containing the Vultures which was most carefully packed,” Gray wrote.

But when the lid came off, the box “contained nothing but the naked skull, arm and leg bones, all the rest had been eaten up, and this was unfortunately the state of all the boxes of African birds which we examined much to our grief and disgust.”  Some species that Burchell had collected would only be “discovered” when Rüppell collected and described them on his own decades later.

But Gray’s assessment of the dire condition of Burchell’s specimens was overstated.  In fact, Burchell seems to have done the fieldwork of preservation with care . The bulk of his collection survives today at the Oxford University Museum, where his southern Africa skins were finally catalogued and named in 1953 , 138 years after the adventurer’s return home.

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