On this date, British scientists announced the rediscovery of scores of fossils that were collected by the great evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin and his peers but were lost for more than 150 years.
Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said that in April 2011 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, drafty British Geological Survey (BGS). 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 labeled “C. Darwin Esq.”
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 best friend of Darwin — and the Rev. John Henslow, Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker. Also included were some of the first thin sections ever made by William Nicol, the pioneer of petrography. The first slide pulled out of the dusty corner at the BGS 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 one of the most “bizarre” slides was a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million-year-old tree-sized fungi. The collection of slides had been assembled by Hooker while briefly working for the BGS 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 half a foot long (15 centimeters), “great big chunks of glass,” Falcon-Lang said.
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 BGS’s headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said.
- Andrews, H.N. The Fossil Hunters: In Search of Ancient Plants. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980).
- Falcon-Lang, Howard J. (January/February 2012) Fossil ‘treasure trove’ found in British Geological Survey vaults, Geology Today 28 (1): 26–30.