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Slides of Fossils Collected by Darwin, Hooker & Henslow are Rediscovered at the British Geological Survey


British paleontologist Howard Falcon-Lang of the University of London rediscovered a "treasure trove" of microscopic slides of fossils, including some collected by Charles Darwin, in an old cabinet in the British Geological Survery. The fossils, which were lost, or perhaps more accurately, hidden and forgotten, for 165 years, were part of a slide collection assembled by British botanist and evolutionist Joseph Dalton Hooker, who was Darwin's best friend. The slides were photographed and made available through an online museum exhibit. This was among the most significant historical discoveries ever made of primary source material concerning Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle.

"Falcon-Lang's find was a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including John [sic] Hooker — a botanist and dear friend of Darwin — and the Rev. John Henslow, Darwin's mentor at Cambridge, whose daughter later married Hooker.  

"The first slide pulled out of the dusty corner at the British Geological Survey 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 the unearthed fossils — lost for 165 years — show there is more to learn from a period of history scientists thought they knew well.  

" 'To find a treasure trove of lost Darwin specimens from the Beagle voyage is just extraordinary,' Falcon-Lang added. 'We can see there's more to learn. There are a lot of very, very significant fossils in there that we didn't know existed.' He said one of the most 'bizarre' slides came from Hooker's collection — a specimen of prototaxites, a 400 million-year-old tree-sized fungus.  

"Hooker had assembled the collection of slides while briefly working for the British Geological Survey 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.  

" 'How these things got overlooked for so long is a bit of a mystery itself,' he mused, speculating that perhaps it was because Darwin was not widely known in 1846 so the collection might not have been given 'the proper curatorial care.'  

"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 British Geological Survey's headquarters near Nottingham 50 years later, the university said" (, accessed 01-19-2012).

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