3 Apr

Edward Wilson’s interest in science was overriding. In 1910 there was much interest in the idea that birds have descended from dinosaurs. The polymath Ernst Haekel (biologist, naturalist, physician, artist, who amongst other things suggested the terms, phylum and phylogeny), proposed that ‘ontology recaptures phylogeny’–the recapulation theory–,

i.e. an individual’s biological development, ontology, follows its species evolutionary development, phylogeny. He was also, importantly from Wilson’s point of view, a supporter of Darwin and Wilson was very interested in this theory.

He postulated that if he obtained early specimens of Emperor Penguin eggs, he might find vestiges of teeth or other evidence that would show that birds do indeed descend from dinosaurs. He was interested in Emperor Penguins because they were flightless and he thought they were amongst the most primitive of birds. His journey, in mid winter, in the dark and in temperatures that reached -76 degrees F, was a horrible story of endurance made famous by the book, ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ by the youngest member of that sortie, Apsley Cheery-Garrard

The Oates Museum has a wonderful collection of penguins but lacked an Emperor (there are apparently few well preserved stuffed specimens in the UK). When one died naturally near the British Halley Research Station in Antarctica, arrangements were made to add this specimen into the collection. The journey, of over 9780 miles, is worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan. The frozen male bird was taken from the Antarctic Peninsula on the research ship ‘Shackleton’, to Port Stanley. The complications of paper work, a licence from DEFRA and a passport was successfully navigated but the defrosting and taxidermy work took so long that the Emperor ‘ missed the boat’ when the ship ‘Shackleton’ returned to England.

Contacts were contacted. The Ministry of Defence were able to help, but would have to charge for the air freight which was expensive, The situation was saved eventually when the Governor of the Falklands, His Excellency Nigel Haywood, agreed to bring the 40 kilo box to England as part of his luggage.

The Earl of Portsmouth opened the exhibit; The Emperor is now a proud part of the collection in the Oates Museum.

I am not sure what Oates would have made of it but Wilson would have been delighted.


  1. Anne Strathie April 3, 2014 at 11:23 am #

    … and I think that Birdie Bowers and Cherry-Garrard would have thought the arrival of the Emperor penguin a fitting conclusion to their Winter Journey with Edward Wilson to Cape Crozier!

    • isobelpwilliams April 3, 2014 at 1:50 pm #

      You are right, and the enterprise seems to have been sufficiently complex to rival some of the Antarctic sorties!!

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