Tuesday, 17 January 2012

A Lost Treasure Trove Of Fossils First Discovered By Charles Darwin

The beautiful plant specimens collected by Charles
Darwin and prepared by Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker
Fossils have been a well recorded phenomenon since the days of ancient China, when the teeth and bones from giant predatory dinosaurs were mistaken for the remains of dragons, and the skulls of Protoceratops sparked off the legend of the griffin. It was only during the 19th century that scientists began to realise the true nature of these finds. It became fashionable to collect fossils and over the years, many great collections were assembled.

Some of these were put together by early pioneers, such as Elizabeth Philpott, famous for her collection of fish from the Jurassic Coast. Many were donated to well established institutions such as the Natural History Museum, London. However, documents pertaining to such collections are not always present along with these fossils. Some decay while others are lost; some are not registered at all. It is for these reasons that, even today, palaeontologists are making new discoveries in the back rooms from collections that are hundreds of years old.

Just a week ago, exactly that happened. Dr Howard Falcon-Lang, from the Department of Earth Sciences, Royal Holloway, University of London, spotted some drawers marked 'unregistered plant fossils.' When he opened them he saw '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.'

The sample was a section of fossil wood collected over 165 years earlier by Darwin on his journey around the world on the HMS Beagle. In the course of his visit to Chiloe Island, Chile, Darwin encountered 'many fragments of black lignite and silicified and pyritous wood, often embedded close together.' The specimens were shipped back to England, where Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker was charged with assembling the items into a new collection.

Hooker failed to register the samples, and over time, the collection was moved and eventually forgotten. The specimens, while not new in terms of species, are a vital piece in the history of palaeontology. 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.'