How A 190-Year-Old Shorebird Preserves Darwin’s Legacy

In honor of Charles Darwin’s 215th birthday, meet the only original Darwin specimen in North America

This shorebird specimen in the museum’s Division of Birds was collected by Charles Darwin in 1833. Chip Clark, NMNH

With more than 148 million specimens and objects in its collection, the vast majority of the National Museum of Natural History’s specimens are off display. But everything  — whether it be a moth, meteorite, moss or mammoth — tells a story that helps museum researchers make sense of the natural world. Each month, the Specimen Spotlight series will highlight a different specimen or object from the world’s largest natural history collection to shed light on why we collect.

If you ask the curators in the National Museum of Natural History’s Division of Birds to pick their favorite bird specimens, you’ll get a wide range of answers. And with more than 600,000 birds in the Smithsonian’s collection, there’s no shortage of amazing aviators to choose from. Some of the most treasured specimens represent rare or extinct species, like the Passenger Pigeon and the colorful Carolina Parakeet. But one of the favorites among curators is rather unassuming: a grayish-brown shorebird that’s abundant throughout North America in the summer and South America in the winter.

The age-worn tag attached to the bird’s leg gives away its claim to fame: this Hudsonian godwit (Limosa haemastica) specimen was collected by none other than the renowned scientist Charles Darwin, whose theory of evolution by natural selection revolutionized science. 

“It’s a little different than our typical research specimen,” said Chris Milensky, the collection manager in the museum’s Division of Birds. “It’s used for more of a historical perspective.”  

In honor of Darwin’s 215th birthday on Feb. 12, Smithsonian Voices delved into this bird’s celebrity connection and what it tells us about Darwin’s legacy today.

The Smithsonian NMNH is one of just eight museums in the world — and the only one in North America — to host an original specimen collected by Charles Darwin. Chip Clark, NMNH

Falkland Island Feathers  

In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on the British Royal Navy’s HMS Beagle just weeks before his 23rd birthday. On this five-year voyage, Darwin was tasked with collecting plants, animals, and anything else he found interesting. He collected a total of 468 bird skins — including specimens of the now famous Galapagos finches that illustrate the small variations between and within species.

One of the birds Darwin collected during his voyage was the Limosa haemastica specimen now housed in the museum’s collection. Smithsonian records show that Darwin collected this specimen on East Falkland Island in March 1833. According to his field notebook, Darwin saw this species “feeding [in] flocks on the mud bank on [the] sea coast.”

Charles Darwin wrote the specimen number 1147, seen here, shortly after collecting the bird in 1833. Fewer than 16 of his original labels are still in existence. Chip Clark, NMNH
After returning to England in 1836, Darwin’s bird collections were inspected by John Gould, the leading British ornithologist at the Zoological Society of London. Gould helped identify many of the species and added new labels, including the one now attached to the museum’s specimen. In the late 1850s, Gould sent this specimen to the United States National Museum, making it one of the earliest additions to what would become the Smithsonian’s vast bird collections.

"That’s where I see the value of having collections. It allows you that space and time to come back and it relates to our natural world."

— Chris Milensky, NMNH Collections Manager, Bird Division

Contemplating Collections  

In the years after returning from his voyage, Darwin used the observations he made on his journey to gradually compose his theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, laying out his theory that nature selects for small, inherited variations that increase an individual’s ability to survive and reproduce. This theory still stands as the dominant scientific explanation for natural processes such as speciation and extinction.

The Smithsonian houses over 600,000 bird specimens, including bird skins, feathers, skeletons, nests and eggs. Naomi Greenberg, NMNH

Like Darwin, scientists at the Smithsonian also use their collections — including Darwin’s Hudsonian godwit — to draw conclusions about the natural world.   

“That’s where I see the value of having collections,” Milensky said. “It allows you that space and time to come back and evaluate and think about what you have in the collections and how it relates to our natural world. That’s how [Darwin] did it. That’s how he came up with his theory of evolution.”

These “Darwin’s Finches” from the Galapagos Islands have minor variations in beak shape and depth, which are apparent when comparing them side by side. Naomi Greenberg, NMNH

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps

Collections specialist Ingrid Rochon freezes tissue samples to preserve their DNA for future research. While Darwin had a sense that traits could be passed from parent to offspring, he knew nothing about the physical basis of this phenomenon: genetics. Naomi Greenberg, NMNH

The processes Darwin and his contemporaries used to prepare bird specimens is nearly identical to those used in museum collections today. In the prep lab, research assistants like Ingrid Rochon assemble bird specimens for research or display.

“It feels like we’ve tapped into this tradition that goes back a couple hundred years,” Rochon said. “We’re doing exactly what Darwin would have been doing.”

Having the Darwin specimen in the collections is particularly special given his huge legacy. According to Rochon, “it’s this physical representation of a really revolutionary and creative thought by someone who changed biology.” ■

Related Stories
In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt Won a Presidential Election…And a Pair of Ostriches 
Turning Off Your Lights Could Save Millions of Birds Each Year from Deadly Building Collisions 
How Bird Collecting Evolved Into Bird-Watching 
How Evolution Brought a Flightless Bird Back From Extinction