Charles Darwin fossils found in ‘old cabinet’ in new online exhibit

17 Jan 2012

HMS Beagle at Tierra del Fuego in South America, painted by Conrad Martens (1801-1878). During the second voyage of the HMS Beagle (1831-36) Darwin came up with his founding ideas about the theory of evolution by natural selection during the voyage

Fossils, which had been missing for 165 years, including some collected by Charles Darwin, have been found in an ‘old cabinet’ by paleontologist Dr Howard Falcon-Lang in the British Geological Survey. They are now open for public viewing via a unique online museum exhibit.

The fossils have been photographed and the online museum exhibit has just opened today.

Falcon-Lang, who is part of the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London, inadvertently stumbled upon the fossils.

As he himself recalls: “While searching through an old cabinet, 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!”

Falcon-Lang has described coming across “hundreds of beautiful glass slides made by polishing fossil plants into thin translucent sheets”.

Such a process meant the slides could be studied under the microscope. “Almost the first slide I picked up was labelled ‘C. Darwin Esq.’ This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834!”

During that particular voyage, Darwin sowed the genesis of what would be his theory of evolution.

According to the British Geological Survey, Joseph Hooker, a botanist and Darwin’s close friend, was responsible for assembling the fossil collection while he worked for the Survey in 1846.

The material includes some of the first thin sections ever made by William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography who invented the polarising microscope. It also includes specimens picked up by Darwin and Hooker on their round-the-world voyages in the 1830s and 1840s, the British Geological Society has confirmed.

Apparently, the fossils became lost because Hooker never registered them in the ‘specimen register’ before he set off for the Himalayas.

Then, according to Royal Holloway, these fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly, before being transferred to the Geological Museum, South Kensington, in 1935. Their final resting place was the British Geological Survey HQ near Nottingham circa 1985.

Speaking today, Dr John Ludden, executive director of the British Geological Survey, said: “This is quite a remarkable discovery. It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections.”

Carmel Doyle was a long-time reporter with Silicon Republic