Darwin’s Lost Fossils Found
A ‘treasure trove’ of fossils including plant specimens collected by Charles Darwin, has been rediscovered. The fossils, which have been lost for 165 years, were unearthed in an old cabinet at the British Geological Survey’s vast fossil collection.
They now have been registered and photographed and are available for viewing by the public through a new online museum exhibit at: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/discoveringGeology/geologyOfBritain/archives/jdhooker/
|Just one of the lost fossils collected by Charles Darwin Courtesy of BGS©NERC|
Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, made the discovery. He recalled, “While searching a cabinet for fossils from the Bristol Coalfield, I spotted some drawers marked ‘unregistered fossil plants.’ I can’t resist a mystery, so I pulled one open. What I found inside made my jaw drop!”
Dr. Falcon-Lang continued, “Inside the drawer were hundreds of beautiful glass slides made by polishing fossil plants into thin translucent sheets. This process allows them to be studied under the microscope. Almost the first slide I picked up was labeled ‘C. Darwin Esq.’ This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected during Darwin’s famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834!” (This was the expedition during which Darwin developed the first inkling of his theory of evolution).
Joseph Hooker, a botanist and Darwin’s best friend, was responsible for assembling the ‘lost’ collection while he worked for the British Geological Survey in 1846. Other specimens discovered include fossils that Hooker had found during an intrepid circum-Antarctic voyage in 1840. Still others came from the cabinet of the Rev. John Henslow (Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge), whose daughter later married Hooker.
The fossils became ‘lost’ as Hooker failed to number them in the formal “register” before setting out on an expedition to the Himalayas. In 1851, the “unregistered” fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly, before being transferred to the Geological Museum, South Kensington in 1935, and finally onto the British Geological Survey HQ near Nottingham 50 years later. With each move, the significance of the fossils gradually became forgotten.
Dr. Mike Howe, Chief Curator of the British Geological Survey said, “The Survey’s sample registration system is similar to that used by Darwin on the Beagle, and dates back to 1848, so Hooker’s collection was only a year or two too early to be included. Howard’s discovery provides important information on the intriguing relationships between key scientists of the day, and we are pleased to make photographs of the slides available to academics and the public.”
Dr. John Ludden, Executive Director of the Geological Survey said, “This is quite a remarkable discovery. It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections.”
The British Geological Survey
The British Geological Survey (BGS), a component body of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), is the nation’s principal supplier of objective, impartial and up-to-date geological expertise and information for decision making for governmental, commercial and individual users. The BGS maintains and develops the nation’s understanding of its geology to improve policy making, enhance national wealth and reduce risk. It also collaborates with the national and international scientific community in carrying out research in strategic areas, including energy and natural resources, our vulnerability to environmental change and hazards, and our general knowledge of the Earth system. More about the BGS can be found at www.bgs.ac.uk.