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Birds of many feathers reflect Darwin’s research, on display in new Natural History Museum of Utah exhibit

First Published      Last Updated Sep 18 2015 09:09 am

NHMU exhibit » “Pigeons” and “Birds of Paradise” teach different aspects of evolution theory.

There are plenty of bird specimens in the two new exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Utah. But one is special, because of who once owned and studied it.

A pigeon specimen that was examined by the famed naturalist Charles Darwin will be part of an exhibit, "Pigeons," opening Saturday at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

The specimen is of a fantail pigeon from Madras, India, sent to Darwin by Sir Walter Elliot, another naturalist, in 1857. Darwin raised pigeons in his home in Kent, England, and collected specimens from all over. His research with pigeons was key in developing the theory of evolution, set forth in his landmark 1859 book "On the Origin of Species."

Pigeons helped Darwin understand variation within a single species, said Lisa Thompson, exhibit developer for the Natural History Museum of Utah. "No other single species of bird shows as much diversity within that species as domesticated pigeons do," Thompson said.

Darwin studied the way pigeon breeders would choose certain desirable traits and mate pigeons with those traits — so future generations would develop those traits.

He saw that breeders were doing to pigeons what natural selection did to all species, said Donney Nicholson, a curation officer with the Natural History Museum in London, which is loaning the fantail pigeon specimen to the Utah museum.

"Darwin asked: If [a pigeon] can change by artificial means, can the environment do the same thing over a longer period of time?" Nicholson said.

Variation, Darwin found, is the key to natural selection. "Natural selection can't work unless there are individuals that have slightly different traits that convey some kind of adaptive advantage, and allows them to survive better than … other members of their species," Thompson said. "If all the members of a population had the exact same traits, if there were no variation, there would be nothing for natural selection to act upon, and there would be no change. Nothing would evolve. Everything would stay the same."

The "Pigeons" exhibit shows not only Darwin's specimen, but first editions of "On the Origin of Species" and "The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication," an 1868 volume that included much of his research corroborating his earlier work.

Both books are on loan from the University of Utah's Marriott Library, which owns first-edition copies of all of Darwin's books, said Luise Poulton, managing curator of the Marriott Library's rare-books department.

The library acquired some of the Darwin books, Poulton said, at the request of Michael Shapiro, associate professor of biology at the University of Utah, who is leading research on pigeon genetics that follows in Darwin's footsteps.

The "Pigeons" exhibit is paired with a touring exhibit also opening Saturday, "Birds of Paradise: An Amazing Avian Evolution," created by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. That exhibit includes examples of many tropical bird species from New Guinea, which demonstrate a type of evolution called "sexual selection" — variations that allow males to attract females.

"It's a type of evolution that puzzled Charles Darwin at first," Thompson said, noting that Darwin once wrote a letter to a colleague saying that "the sight of a peacock tail makes me sick."

"He couldn't explain through natural selection why in the world a peacock would have a tail like that," Thompson said. "It doesn't help you evade predators. It's obviously cumbersome and expensive to grow. But the advantage it does convey is that having the most attractive tail does get you the most mates."




Birds and evolution

The exhibits “Birds of Paradise” and “Pigeons.”

Where » Natural History Museum of Utah, 301 Wakara Way, University of Utah campus, Salt Lake City

When » Opens Saturday, Sept. 19, and runs through Jan. 3, 2016

Tickets » $9-$13 admission includes both exhibits; nhmu.utah.edu