Wednesday 18 January 2012

Lost fossils of Charles Darwin and Joseph Hooker rediscovered.

The British Geological Survey has a collection of over 3 million fossils, gathered by palaeontologists all over the world in the two centuries since it was founded. With such a large collection, it is not surprising that the odd thing has been mislaid over the years. This means that researchers peering into the back of old draws occasionally make discoveries every bit as important as interesting as those made in the field. Nevertheless it came as a shock to palaeobotanist Howard Falcon-Lang of Royal Holloway, University of London, when he realized that the collection of fossil plants he found in a vault at the Survey's Keyworth facility had in fact been assembled by famous Victorian botanist Joseph Hooker, and included fossils gathered by Charles Darwin on his voyage on the HMS Beagle.

Joseph Hooker c.1851. By portrait artist George Richmond.

Hooker worked for the survey from February 1846 to October 1847, having already made his name as a scientist aboard the circum-Antarctic voyage of the HMS Erebus in 1839-43. During this time he was involved in exploration and mapping in Bristol and Somerset, and in the South Wales coalfields, and worked at the Survey's Museum of Economic Geology in London. His work on fossil plants was published in a three book memoir in 1848, by which time he had left the Survey to join an expedition to the Himalayas.

The material discovered at Keyworth is mostly in the form of thin section slides (geological samples cut thin enough to be mounted on a microscope slide and have a light shone through them) of fossil plants from the Carboniferous Coal Measures. The collection contains material collected by Hooker from the Sub-Antarctic Kerguelan Islands and the Macquarie Plains of Tasmania, as well as fossils from the UK Coal Measures, material collected by Darwin from Chiloe Island, off the coast of Chile, material from naturalist Henry Witham's Durham Collection (which includes material from Scotland, Yorkshire and the East China Sea - collected together in Durham), material collected by Harriet Henslow (Hooker's future wife), and material collected by other naturalists, many of them amateurs, in Antigua, Australia, Egypt, India, Jamaica, the Far East, the Isle of Portland, Wolverhampton and South Wales.

Thin section through a nodule containing club-moss cones of the Genus Strobili. About 310 million years old, from the Coal Measures of Yorkshire or Lancashire. Collector unknown.

Petrified wood collected near Whitby in Yorkshire in 1814, and thin sectioned by William Nicol (the inventor of the method) for Henry Witham for his Durham Collection.
Section through the cone of an Aruacaria (Monkey Puzzle) Tree. Collector unknown, the trees are from South America, though they have since become popular ornamentals in the UK.

The British Geological Survey has created an online museum exhibit, with information about the slides and the collectors, where some of the specimens can be viewed.