Hundreds Of Lost Darwin Fossils Discovered
January 17, 2012

Hundreds Of Lost Darwin Fossils Discovered

Numerous fossils -- including some collected by Charles Darwin -- have been rediscovered in an old wooden cabinet that had been tucked away in a dark corner of the British Geological Survey (BGS) headquarters in the UK, reports The Telegraph.

The “treasure trove” of fossils was found by Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, undoubtedly by accident. The fossils had been lost to science for nearly 165 years, before Falcon-Lang stumbled onto them.

The fossils have been photographed, documented, and are now available to the public through a new online museum exhibit released today.

Falcon-Lang said he had spotted some drawers in a cabinet marked “unregistered fossil plants.” He explained that “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´,” Falcon-Lang remarked excitedly. “It took me a while just to convince myself that it was Darwin´s signature on the slide,” he told BBC News, adding he soon realized it was a “quite important and overlooked” specimen.

He described the feeling of seeing Darwin´s famous signature as “a heart in your mouth situation,” and wondering “Goodness, what have I discovered!”

The rediscovery included a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including botanist John Hooker and Rev. John Henslow, Darwin´s mentor at Cambridge.

The first slide he pulled out of the cabinet turned out to be one of the specimens collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle expedition in 1834, which changed the young Cambridge graduate´s career and laid the foundation for his subsequent work on evolution.

In the course of his visit to Chiloe Island, Darwin encountered “many fragments of black lignite and silicified and pyritous wood, often embedded close together.” The fragments were shipped back to England where they were cut and ground into thin sections. Hooker was responsible for assembling the collection while he briefly worked for the BGS in 1846.

The fossils became lost because Hooker failed to number them in the formal specimen register before setting out on his own expedition to the Himalayas. The collection was moved several times and eventually became forgotten.

But what Falcon-Lang found most “bizarre,” perhaps, were slides coming from Hooker´s collection -- a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million year old tree-sized fungi. His work, along with Darwin´s, was lost to the ages.

Some of the slides Falcon-Lang pulled out were up to 6 inches long. “How these things got overlooked for so long is a bit of a mystery itself,” Falcon-Lang mused, speculating that it may have been because Darwin was not widely recognized in 1846 so the collection may not have been given proper credit and care.

The rediscovery was made in April, but it has taken months to figure out the provenance of the slides and photograph and document all of them, Falcon-Lang said. He said he expects great scientific papers to emerge from this rediscovery.

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


Image Caption: This spectacular slide shows the cross-section of a cone of a monkey-puzzle tree. Similar cones have been found in South America. Credit: British Geological Survey


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