Wallace and paradise

by Ann Sylph on

This month we continue to commemorate the centenary of Alfred Russel Wallace by featuring birds of paradise. Wallace brought the first living birds of paradise to ZSL London Zoo; he arrived with them in 1862. Before their display at ZSL, it was generally thought that the birds had no legs and were continually flying. The dead specimens previously seen in Europe were prepared skins with legs removed! Linnaeus himself named these birds Paradisa apoda – footless bird of paradise. The fact they had feet was not confirmed until they were observed in the nineteenth century by Rene Primevere Lesson on a voyage of the French ship La Coquille; he also observed how the birds were prepared by local people. However the myth about them continued until Alfred Russel Wallace reported observing them in the wild. The Lesser birds of paradise displayed at ZSL London Zoo stimulated a great interest in birds of paradise and bower birds and several beautiful, illustrated folio volumes were published describing the many species.

Wallace provided a written account of his narrative of his search for birds of paradise and this was published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society in 1862. This article and an introduction by Steve Le Comber 'The Scientists! Adventures with Pirates' is freely available to read online as a Hidden Gem.

Wallace being attacked by toucans in the Brazilian rain forest - image opposite the title page of 'The naturalist on the river Amazons'
Wallace being attacked by toucans in the Brazilian rain forest - image opposite the title page of 'The naturalist on the river Amazons'

ZSL Archives contains 40 letters by Wallace to Philip Lutley Sclater, the then Secretary of ZSL. These include a receipt for the purchase of the birds of paradise as well as letters en route from Singapore, Ceylon and Folkstone. We also have a letter from Wallace thanking ZSL for awarding him Fellowship.

Information about the Wallace collection online and Wallace 100 celebrations can be found at the Wallace 100 page

Wallace's publications and items in the ZSL Archives form part of the 'special collections' of ZSL Library. You are welcome to visit and consult/view them but an appointment is necessary. 

Please email library@zsl.org or telephone 020 447 6293 to make an appointment.

Birds of paradise, by Daniel Giraud Elliot 1873
A monograph of the Paradiseidae, or birds of paradise, by Daniel Giraud Elliot, 1873.

We will be offering talks/tours about Wallace to Fellows in early October. Places are limited and must be prebooked with the Fellowship & Development Department. All Fellows should receive booking details in a mailing about Fellowship Events by 13 September.

Many resources are available in ZSL Library and no appointment is necessary to use these, however if you are a ZSL member please bring your membership card. Non-members will need proof of address and photographic ID if you are not already a member of ZSL.

Use our online catalogue to find more detailed information about specific items in our holdings. It also contains links to relevant online resources:

Search our Library catalogue

Enjoy reading the Journal of Zoology Virtual issue celebrating Wallace one of the greatest zoologists of all time!

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