Scientists find 'lost' Darwin fossils

2012-01-17 09:30

London - British scientists have found scores of fossils the evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin and his peers collected but that had been lost for more than 150 years.

Dr Howard Falcon-Lang, a palaeontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said on Tuesday that he stumbled upon the glass slides containing the fossils in an old wooden cabinet that had been shoved in a "gloomy corner" of the massive British Geological Survey.

Using a flashlight to peer into the drawers and hold up a slide, Falcon-Lang saw one of the first specimens he had picked up was labelled "C Darwin Esq".

"It took me a while just to convince myself that it was Darwin's signature on the slide," the palaeontologist said, adding he soon realised it was a "quite important and overlooked" specimen.

He described the feeling of seeing that famous signature as "a heart in your mouth situation", saying he wondered: "Goodness, what have I discovered!"

More to learn

Falcon-Lang's find was a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including John Hooker - a botanist and dear friend of Darwin - and the Reverend John Henslow, Darwin's mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker.

The first slide pulled out of the dusty corner at the British Geological Survey turned out to be one of the specimens collected by Darwin during his famous expedition on the HMS Beagle, which changed the young Cambridge graduate's career and laid the foundation for his subsequent work on evolution.

Falcon-Lang said the unearthed fossils - lost for 165 years - show there is more to learn from a period of history scientists thought they knew well.

"To find a treasure trove of lost Darwin specimens from the Beagle voyage is just extraordinary," Falcon-Lang added. "We can see there's more to learn. There are a lot of very, very significant fossils in there that we didn't know existed."

He said one of the most "bizarre" slides came from Hooker's collection - a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million-year-old tree-sized fungi.

Hooker had assembled the collection of slides while briefly working for the British Geological Survey in 1846, according to Royal Holloway, University of London.

The slides - "stunning works of art", according to Falcon-Lang - contain bits of fossil wood and plants ground into thin sheets and affixed to glass in order to be studied under microscopes. Some of the slides are 15cm long, "great big chunks of glass", Falcon-Lang said.

Museum exhibit

"How these things got overlooked for so long is a bit of a mystery itself," he mused, speculating that perhaps it was because Darwin was not widely known in 1846 so the collection might not have been given "the proper curatorial care".

Royal Holloway, University of London said the fossils were "lost" because Hooker failed to number them in the formal "specimen 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 South Kensington's Geological Museum in 1935 and then to the British Geological Survey's headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said.

The discovery was made in April, but it has taken "a long time" to figure out the provenance of the slides and photograph all of them, Falcon-Lang said. The slides have now been photographed and will be made available to the public through a new online museum exhibit opening on Tuesday.

Falcon-Lang expects great scientific papers to emerge from the discovery.

"There are some real gems in this collection that are going to contribute to ongoing science."

Dr John Ludden, executive director of the Geological Survey, called the find a "remarkable" discovery.

"It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections," he said.

  • Hans - 2012-01-17 09:48

    Much to the distress of the religious nutcrackers... they don't like evidence.

      MagdaKus - 2012-01-17 10:47

      Don't tar all the religious nuts with the same brush; I may be seen as one- but have no issues with science per se (happy with natural selection, bing bang and so on) Don't know why people (both sides) get so wound up about this ;-)

      MagdaKus - 2012-01-17 10:55

      Excuse my spelling; was not smoking anything ;-)

      Godfrey - 2012-01-17 11:16

      @MagdaKus Your enlightened views are to be welcomed but you are very much in the minority. There is a huge effort, led by the American manufactured versions of Christianity as well as many Muslims, to denounce evolution and to force feed creationist nonsense to children. If you go on and on about God’s commandments and keep flinging the tablets of stone at other people, sooner of later someone is going to pick up a bit and chuck it right back at you. - Edwina Currie

      Andre - 2012-01-17 12:34

      Hans, the non-believers have less proof of their theories of macro-evolution than the archaeological proof that the Bible is right!

      Celtis - 2012-01-17 12:47

      I would hardly call this groundbreaking. I mean, finding evidence in a museum for goodness sake. In terms of evolutionary timescales a 165 years is nothing and with all the latest technology the same sample should have been collected since then?

      Clive.D.Buckley - 2012-01-17 13:12

      Andre, if it makes you feel better, keep repeating the lies you read on creationist websites... makes no difference to us!!

      J-Man - 2012-01-17 14:59

      @ Andre - HAHHAHAHAHAHHAHAAAAAAA!!!!!! Good one.

      Victor - 2012-01-18 09:00

      Andre: "the archaeological proof that the Bible is right" What? You mean you have archaeological proof for the supernatural events mentioned in the bible? Do share

  • Zion - 2012-01-17 09:55

    When the slides are finally photographed and made public think how much the man and his evolutionary theory will grow in esteem. Think too, how this find may be uses in the usual tired arguments: Evolution versus religion.

  • Godfrey - 2012-01-17 11:19

    This is a fantastic find. Darwin was one of history's foremost and bravest scientists and thinkers.

  • Ben - 2012-01-17 16:24

    Pretty damn cool. Would love to see em!

  • Victor - 2012-01-18 12:09

    What, no meaningless post from Fredster69? He must be on leave, never misses a chance to come and post on a science article, esp one regarding evolution

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