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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.