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What is there to see?

Highlights of the Collection

Highlights of the collection include fossil fish from Dura Den, Fife.  When excavated in the 19th century, these fuelled the debate on evolution, as their forms suggested they might be a ‘bridge’ between water- and land-dwelling creatures. Ultimately, they proved not to be a 'missing link' of this nature, but they do provide material evidence of the development of life.

Some items are of particular importance for their provenance.  These include a quetzal and other birds presented by Dr Albert Gunther, which came originally from the collections of Alfred Russel Wallace, the eminent naturalist who, with Charles Darwin, was a co-inventor of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Other material is important for its rarity or uniqueness.  The Museum holds examples of several extinct species, including the dodo, solitaire, moa, passenger pigeon, thylacine (Tasmanian wolf), heath hen (USA) and St Kilda house-mouse.  There are Irish elk horns; while the horns of the blaubock are one of only half a dozen complete sets of horns of this now extinct antelope still in existence.

Other material of special interest includes Narwhal tusks (once believed to be the horns of unicorns); a specimen of the Gangetic river dolphin (listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List); and a cast of a hind leg of a Diplodocus presented by industrialist and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, Rector of the University 1901-07. 

There is a superb example of a Venus' Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum), a species of glass sponge first described by the great Victorian anatomist Richard Owen in 1841.  The inner cavity of the sponge is often the home of a pair of small symbiotic shrimp. Once the shrimp grow they can never leave, and so the sponge was often given as a wedding present, to symbolise domestic harmony.  Euplectella is made up of a series of threads of glass-like fibres, which can transmit light, and are now the basis of current research into fibre-optics. 

The Bell Pettigrew Museum collection contains several type specimens (the specimen whose description originally defined the particular organism).

Many items in the collections relate to the work of renowned St Andrews professors of Natural History such as William Carmichael M’Intosh (1838-1931), D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), and H.G. Callan (1917-1993).  Thompson is regarded as the father of bio-mathematics, and Callan is internationally renowned for his work on lampbrush chromosomes. 

The Museum also contains a small but important collection of instruments, particularly microscopes, used in Biology at the University of St Andrews over the past century.