Amherst Magazine

How Pigeons Helped Change Everything

By Emily Gold Boutilier

To the trained eye, these pigeon skulls illustrate the kinds of minute variations that Charles Darwin labored to describe.

Kate Wellspring, collections manager at the college’s Museum of Natural History, is an On the Origin of Species junkie. She owns about 15 copies of the Charles Darwin book, eight of which she keeps in her office. A small paperback is her lucky copy, a gift for her 12th birthday. “I’ve been collecting the book for years,” she says.

Wellspring and others have created a special display at the museum to mark the 150th anniversary of the publication of the revolutionary book in which Darwin explained natural selection. The exhibit opened Nov. 17, 2009, and runs through Feb. 14, 2010. It includes several different copies of the book and a microscope similar to Darwin’s, as well as museum specimens that represent various chapters.

For example, there is the skull of a ground sloth that lived some 1.5 million years ago. Darwin found similar fossils when he arrived in South America, Wellspring says. The ground sloth—a creature about the size of a Clydesdale horse—is related to the much smaller modern tree sloth.

Also on display are modern pigeon skulls. As Wellspring explains, Darwin did experimental breeding of pigeons to demonstrate that selective processes can affect the way future generations of organisms will look. The skulls in the exhibit illustrate the kinds of minute variations that Darwin labored to describe.

In addition, Michael Kelly and Peter Nelson of Archives and Special Collections put together a display in the lobby of Frost Library that includes the college’s treasured first-edition copy of On the Origin of Species, other 19th-century books about natural history and a letter that Darwin sent to Amherst’s Edward Hitchcock. The Frost exhibit, open during all regular library hours, also runs through Feb. 14, 2010.

IF YOU GO:

The Museum of Natural History, located in the college’s Earth Sciences Building, is free and open to the public. Hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. There are more than 1,700 individual specimens on display, including fossil skeletons of a mammoth, mastodon and saber-toothed cat and the world’s largest collection of dinosaur tracks.

Photos by Samuel Masinter '04