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Darwin's 'lost fossils' found

Posted on 20/01/2012

A fossil collected by Joseph Hooker in 1846 showing several cones of 300 million year old club moss trees

A treasure trove of fossils including some collected by Charles Darwin, has been rediscovered by a researcher from Royal Holloway, University of London.

The fossils, which have been ‘lost’ for 165 years, were found by chance in an old cabinet in the British Geological Survey. They have now been photographed and are available to the public through a new online museum exhibit.

Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, made the discovery. He recalled: “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!”

 He added: “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 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.”

Joseph Hooker, a botanist and Darwin’s best friend, was responsible for assembling the ‘lost’ collection while he briefly worked for the British Geological Survey in 1846. Other specimens include fossils that Hooker had found during an intrepid circum-Antarctic voyage in 1840. Still others came from the cabinet of the Revd John Henslow (Darwin’s mentor at Cambridge), whose daughter later married Hooker.

 The fossils became ‘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 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. 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.”

Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang will be part of the Earth Science exhibit at Royal Holloway, Univeristy of London's Science Open Day on Saturday 25 February 2012. For more information visit www.rhul.ac.uk/scienceopenday or follow @RHULScience on Twitter


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