Cache of Darwin’s fossils found

January 18, 2012 • 1:23 pm

You’d think that Darwin’s Beagle collections had been pretty well worked over, but it turns out that we didn’t even know everything that Darwin collected. According to the Associated Press, Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleobotanist at the University of London, found a cache of 314 slides of specimens collected not only by Charles Darwin, but by his colleague Joseph Hooker and by John Henslow, Darwin’s college mentor.  The specimens were apparently misplaced  because Hooker forgot to catalog them before he took off on a field trip to Asia.  They appear to all be thin sections of fossil plants.

Imagine opening a dusty old cabinet and finding something like this:

That’s one of the specimens, and yes, that’s CD’s signature.  What is it?:

This image made available by the Royal Holloway, University of London on Tuesday Jan. 17, 2012 shows a polished section of a 40-million-year-old fossil wood collected by Charles Darwin in 1834 on Chiloe Island, South America in the course of his famous “Voyage of the Beagle.” British scientists have found scores of fossils the great evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin and his peers collected but that had been lost for more than 150 years. Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang, a paleontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London, said Tuesday that 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. (AP Photo/Royal Holloway, University of London, Kevin D’Souza Ho)

“It took me a while just to convince myself that it was Darwin’s signature on the slide,” the paleontologist said, adding he soon realized it was a “quite important and overlooked” specimen.

He described the feeling of seeing that famous signature as “a heart in your mouth situation,” saying he wondering “Goodness, what have I discovered!” . .

(I wouldn’t have used the word “Goodness!”)

Falcon-Lang added:

“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.”

Falcon-Lang expects great scientific papers to emerge from the discovery.

“There are some real gems in this collection that are going to contribute to ongoing science.”

Well, maybe, though my guess would be that they’d contribute more to the history of science than to ongoing research. We shall see.

23 thoughts on “Cache of Darwin’s fossils found

  1. “Plants”

    I’ve always wondered how many of Darwin’s animal observations also ended up as his lunch.

    I.E. The Giant tortoise.

    Would be a bit awkward if some of those specimens had teeth marks.

  2. Mark Phillips just had Howard Falcon-Lang and the cabinet on CBS Evening News. Maybe it’ll run again tonite but at least any of you in western time zones oughtta be able to catch it.

  3. I’m delighted by this discovery but not surprised. As a post-grad student at Imperial College, London, where our lab benches were made of vast slabs of teak imported during the reign of Queen Victoria, there was a basement room, not unlike that in Harry Potter where one could “find things.” I found the parts to an early mass spectrometer which, for fun, I reassembled, got working and used it in an undergraduate lab.

    I found a nice chair down there, very ornate with cracked leather that I hauled up to the lab. On the back was inscribed ‘M. Faraday’ and I thought, “Nawwwwwww!”

    Or was it?

      1. You are correct, & the etymology of ‘god’ is disputed.

        OED says for ‘good’ –
        “The root *gôđ- is perhaps an ablaut-variant of *gađ- to bring together, to unite (see gather v.), so that the original sense of ‘good’ would be that of ‘fitting’, ‘suitable’…”
        And for ‘goodness’ in this sense –
        “As an attribute of the Deity (†said also of Christ and the Virgin Mary): Infinite benevolence, a desire for the happiness of all created beings; also the manifestation of this; beneficence.”

        1. Etymology aside (but thank you for that!), I took JAC’s remark to be a humorous allusion to what a less decorous scientist might exclaim upon such a discovery (think, *expletive deleted*), rather than an expression of “strident gnu-ism.” (Horrors!) 😀

  4. Dr Falcon-Lang talked to the BBC about this discovery –
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-16578330
    He wrote an interesting short article on the BBC site (link from the above page) a couple of years ago “Charles Darwin’s ecological experiment on Ascension isle” on how Darwin & Hooker were instrumental in getting the bare rocky island with only a small number of native plants, to grow a heavily vegetated cloud forest, by importing various trees from all over the world carried there on naval ships.

  5. Swimming against the tide here maybe but I don’t think that’s Darwin’s signature. I don’t mean to cast any doubts on the samples – I’m sure they are his, but the signature doesn’t look right to me. The first thing is the title after the name. I think it’s an abbreviation of ‘esquire’. Esquire is a title, not something you would write after your own name but rather after someone elses as a compliment. Can’t see Darwin doing that, so I imagine someone else wrote it while packing samples up. I’ve looked online for other examples of Darwin’s signature. It’s not so very different but the letter D could be a closer match.

    1. I fear you may be right, it doesn’t look much like his signature on this letter,
      http://www.historical-autographs.com/full-description.aspx?ItemID=20101577

      though presumably he would write his name differently on a letter than in a label, he would nonetheless form his letters in the same way in both cases. These are quite different, one spikey and angular, the other fat and round. Not to mention the fact that Darwin appears to be misspelled on the label.

      This ‘C Darwin’ must have been written by someone working at the museum.

  6. Thanks for posting this Jerry. I’m a bit surprised at your “guess” that this collection is said to include specimens that will contribute to ongoing science. In my field of paleobotany, old collections frequently produce such material. Also, Dr. Falcon-Lang is a competent researcher not prone to hyperbole, so I take him at his word. As you say though, we will see.

  7. Hey, Chiloé is in Chile, my country!. It’s a lovely place. You should visit it sometime. I’d offer to put you up, but unfortunately I live 750 miles North.

    In my area there is a also plaque commemorating Darwin’s visit to La Campana (The Bell), a national park not far from my town. You can see it here:
    http://static.panoramio.com/photos/original/841288.jpg

    It says:

    “Homage to Charles Darwin.

    We spent the day on the mountain top, and never has time seemed so short, Chile extends at our feet like and immense panorama bounded by the Andes and the Pacific Ocean.”

    Charles Darwin
    (“My trip around the world”)
    August 17 1834

    The Scientifi Society of Valparaiso,
    the British colony and
    his admirers.

    August 17, 1935

  8. “an immense,” not “and immense”. When will it be possible to edit comments? (Or when will I learn to check before I post?)

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