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Century Eggs of a different flavour

Century eggs are a Chinese traditon where eggs are placed in an exotic recipe of alkaline clay and brine solution over several months. This preserves them for later consumption, and the chemical changes in the egg proteins makes for an interesting flavour. Of course, these “century” eggs are not, in truth, one hundred years old. The Museum, however, does have actual century eggs that have been carefully prepared and preserved for later use, and can provide science with a very tasty treat.

Century eggs. On the left, the Chinese version where colours should change to insure preservation (photo from Wikimedia Commons). On the right, The Museum version as exemplified by Black-legged Kittiwake eggs collected by A.C. Bent in 1911. Preserving the original colours and shapes are what makes museum eggs valuable.

Century eggs. On the left, the Chinese version where colours should change to insure preservation (photo from Wikimedia Commons). On the right, The Museum version as exemplified by Black-legged Kittiwake eggs collected by A.C. Bent in 1911. Preserving the original colours and shapes are what makes museum eggs valuable.

I’m afraid I couldn’t help myself, and once I had found 100-year-old eggs in the collection for my last blog post, I thought I would see if we had others. The Museum has 8 sets of eggs that are 100 years old this year. And we do have even older-than-century eggs, with over 120 clutches collected before 1911. The oldest is a set of five Clapper Rail eggs collected in Louisian in April 1880.

Clapper Rail eggs collected in New Orleans in April 1880 (MM1.21-160).

Clapper Rail eggs collected in New Orleans in April 1880 (MM1.21-160).

Of the actual century eggs in the Museum collection, two were collected by Arthur Cleveland Bent of Bent’s Life Histories fame, and examined in the last posting. Of the remaining sets, there is a Sandhill Crane from Alaska,  a Grey Heron from Scotland, a Double-crested Cormorant from Quebec, a Caspian Tern from California, a Clapper Rail from Virginia, and an Osprey from New Jersey.

A Sandhill Crane egg from Alaska at left (MM1.21-142) and two Grey Heron eggs from Scotland (MM1.21-129), all 100 years old.

A Sandhill Crane egg from Alaska at left (MM1.21-142) and two Grey Heron eggs from Scotland (MM1.21-129), all 100 years old.

If you can’t eat these century eggs, what good are they? Older collections are valuable because they provide proof (a voucher) that a particular species occurred in a certain area and, in the case of eggs, provide evidence that the species was breeding. This can be important for species recovery planning and ecosystem rehabilitation.

Century eggs of Double-crested Comorant at left (MM1.21.-106) and Caspian Tern at right (MM1.21-66).

Century eggs of Double-crested Comorant at left (MM1.21.-106) and Caspian Tern at right (MM1.21-66).

Older specimens also provide an opportunity to examine ecosystems at the time they were collected – another Museum collection time machine.  Using various chemical analyses, scientists can determine how nutrients were cycled in an ecosystem in the past and compare how those same nutrients cycle today. Are the processes the same? If not, why not? Similarly, original background levels of various elements and chemicals can be determined from old specimens. Are today’s activities changing the levels of particular compounds in our environment compared to what they were 100 years ago?

Clutches of Clapper Rail and Osprey eggs, each 100 years old and perhaps providing a record of environmental conditions at that time.

Clutches of Clapper Rail and Osprey eggs, each 100 years old and perhaps providing a record of environmental conditions at that time.

With an active and thoughtfully built museum research collection, the history and pattern of chemical signals in our environment as well as general ecosystem health and composition over the last 130 or more years can be studied and compared. This can help us better understand ecological processes and inform us on how to better manage our environment. It is worth keeping in mind, though, that the original collections were made not for some planned future application, but for the plain joy and fascination in the world around us. Taking an active interest in nature and exploring its riches just out of pure curiosity, just to know, will take us places and provide opportunities we would never have had otherwise.

I wouldn’t recommend making a meal of the Museum century eggs , but they certainly can give science and society a great deal to chew on.

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Dr. Mooi

Curator of Zoology

See Full Biography

Dr. Mooi received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Toronto working on the evolutionary history of coral reef fishes. Following a postdoctoral fellowship in the Division of Fishes of the Smithsonian Institution investigating the biology of deep sea fish families and examining relationships of perch-like fishes, he was Curator of Fishes and Section Head of Vertebrate Zoology at the Milwaukee Public Museum. While there he was involved in several expeditions to Indo-Pacific coral reefs as part of his fish research. Dr. Mooi joined The Manitoba Museum in 2004 focusing on fish evolution and post-glacial biogeography of snakes, toads and sticklebacks in the province.