Treasures of the Museum

The collection currently displayed as the Bell-Pettigrew Museum of Natural History was founded as the museum of the Literary and Philosophical Society of St Andrews in April 1838. The Society handed the collection over to the University in 1904 and, as it had outgrown its previous venue, this museum, funded by Bell-Pettigrew’s widow, was opened in 1912. The collection was much reduced during a redevelopment in 1958, however there are still over 3000 species on display, some of which are highlighted below.

Venus’ Flower Basket (Euplectella aspergillum) Case 3Venus Flower Basket

The great Victorian anatomist Richard Owen first described this species of glass sponge in 1841. Owen, a contemporary of Darwin and the first Director of the British Museum (Natural History), was famed for his skilled dissections and also his knowledge of taxonomy. The bleached skeletons of this sponge were much admired by Victorians for display under glass domes and an example such as this would have fetched around 5 guineas. Euplectella grows in the seas around Japan and the Philippines and is made up of a series of threads of glass-like fibres. These fibres, which can transmit light, have been much studied and are the basis of current research into fibre-optics. The inner cavity of the sponge is often the home to a pair of small symbiotic shrimp. Once the shrimp grow they can never leave and the sponge is often given as a symbolic wedding present.

QuetzalQuetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) Case 35

This quetzal was presented to the Bell-Pettigrew Museum by Dr Albert Gunther, Keeper of Zoology at the British Museum and brother-in-law of William Carmichael McIntosh. The specimen was donated as part of a collection of birds previously belonging to Alfred Russell Wallace, the eminent naturalist and co-inventor of natural selection as a mechanism of evolution. The resplendent quetzal (Pharomachrus mocinno) was the sacred bird of the ancient Mayas and Incas who prized its long, iridescent tail feathers for dress and decoration. Despite being revered throughout South America, the survival of the quetzal is still far from secure and the species appears on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List of threatened species.

White-tailed EagleWhite-tailed Eagle (Haliaeetus albicilla) Case 1

As a result of habitat loss and persecution this magnificent species became extinct in Scotland, with the last bird being shot in Shetland in 1918. However reintroduction work started in 1959, and saw the release of 82 young Norwegian birds on Rum between 1975 and 1985 and a further 58 birds in Wester Ross between 1993 and 1998. The species has now made a successful return, with 32 territorial pairs in Scotland centred on Mull and Rum. White-tailed eagles are long-lived birds with an average life span of 21 years. They form life-long pair bonds, but will remate if their partner dies. They feed mainly on fish, but also commonly eat other birds and rabbits. It is now Britain’s largest bird with females weighing up to 7 kg and having a wingspan of nearly 2.5 metres.

Dura Den FossilDura Den Fossil Fish (Case 43)

The fossil beds of Dura Den, 6 miles East of St Andrews, became world famous in the 19th century for the hundreds of fossil fish that were excavated. The first fossils to be discovered in this bed were found at Drumdryan quarry in 1827 by Mr. Spence, a student at St. Andrews University. Spence showed his find to a local interested clergyman, Rev. John Anderson, the minister in Newburgh. Anderson recognized their importance and spent several years looking for further examples. He asked local quarry workers to help and was amazed when in 1836 he was called from a presbytery meeting by a mason, working on Dura Mill, holding a slab containing a complete fish. The fossils are of extinct species of lobe-finned fish, a previously much larger group that now only contains 7 living species, 6 species of lungfish and the Coelacanth, Latimeria chalumnae.

CarthorseCarthorse (Equus caballus) Mounted Skeleton

This is the skeleton of Bassey the carthorse. Bassey was used to pull a converted artillery carriage to draw the raw blocks of stone for the Bell Rock lighthouse from the quarries to the mason’s yard and then down to the pier at Arbroath. After the lighthouse was built, the horse was moved to the island of Inchkeith in the Forth where it died in 1818. Bassey drew over 2000 tonnes of stone and was much admired as an example. His skeleton was bought, prepared and displayed by the notable anatomist, Dr John Barclay, in his personal collection. Barclay commented that “.. it will be seen and admired as a useful skeleton, and a source of instruction, when those of his employers lie mingled with the dust’. It was later gifted to the Royal College of Surgeons, Edinburgh before being transferred to the Bell-Pettigrew in 1922. Bassey was also commemorated by Robert Stevenson who named a section of the Bell Rock in honour of the horse.

Bank's OarfishBanks’ Oarfish (Regalecus banksii) Case 18

Also known as the King of the Herring, the oarfish holds the record as the world’s longest bony fish, reaching lengths in excess of 11 metres. This open-ocean species has a large geographical range and lives in the deep waters of the Atlantic, Eastern Pacific and Mediterranean. However it is rarely seen, apart from occasional individuals washed up on beaches. This cast of the head is all that remains of a magnificent young 12-foot (3.5 metres) specimen that was washed ashore on the cliffs below St Andrews’ East Sands in December 1944. The fishermen who found it, reported that it “shone like silver and the fins were of a brilliant crimson”. Unfortunately, but perhaps unsurprisingly during rationing, the fishermen then cut it up and eat it. However D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson was able to rescue the head and preserve it for the museum.

St Kilda House MouseSt Kilda House Mouse (Mus musculus muralis) Case 30

The archipelago of St Kilda lies 41 miles west of Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides and its cliffs form the most important seabird breeding station in northwest Europe. The islands were first inhabited around 5000 years ago, however in 1930 the last 36 remaining inhabitants requested evacuation to the mainland. The St Kilda house mouse, which is now extinct, was a larger subspecies of the mainland house mouse. However it relied on the human population and their dropped food and grain for survival and sadly eight years after the evacuation this unique population disappeared.