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Cracking open ecological secrets of museum egg collections


Swansea University ecologist Dr Patricia Lee has won a British Ecological Society (BES) grant to unlock the secrets of the millions of eggs held in museum collections worldwide.

The bird collection at London’s Natural History Museum alone includes more than a million skins and eggs, collected over the past 200 years and representing 95% of all known bird species. While the skins have proved a good source of DNA and have been widely used by scientists to study many aspects of bird biology, using the eggs for similar research has so far been problematic.

According to Lee: “Unlike bird skin specimens, eggs can be difficult to identify on appearance because many bird species produce essentially identical eggs, and until recently it was not known if DNA could be obtained from blown eggs. Other work involving the Natural History Museum’s collections has now demonstrated that enough DNA can sometimes be extracted from the residual dry membranes of duck eggs to identify the species of bird that the egg came from. This project will compare the quality and quantity of DNA that can be extracted from archive eggs with the DNA from skins. This will allow us to find out whether or not it is feasible to use DNA from archive eggs and find the most appropriate method of extracting the DNA.”

Lee’s research will focus on eggs from snipe (Gallinago spp), an array of closely similar species that lay frequently indistinguishable eggs. These look like quail eggs, with dark splotches on a lighter background; the eggs are larger than a quail’s although smaller than a chicken’s. Her results will help make sure that eggs in museum collections are correctly identified, which in turn will allow much more ecological research to be done using them.

“Establishing DNA extraction methods for archive eggs - as has already been done with skins - will be an invaluable advance for ecologists in opening up a new resource for research and will further enhance the scientific value of archive biological material,” Lee says.

Becky Allen | alfa
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