Conserving Darwin’s Fossils| Digital Collections Programme

Comparing the surviving fossil mammal specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the Voyage of the Beagle with original drawings and casts of the specimens from 1837-1840, it is clear that some have sustained significant damage in the 185 years since they were collected.

Digitising the collection and releasing 3D models and specimen data online will go a long way to reducing handling of the specimens. This will reduce risk of further damage, whilst still making them accessible to researchers and the public; however, it is not the only tool we have.

Conserving the specimens for future generations involves providing stable storage conditions (particularly for changes in humidity and temperature), and using appropriate conservation grade materials and established techniques to ensure their preservation.

Heidi Potter is one of our long-term volunteers in the Earth Sciences Department at the Museum. With guidance from the Museum conservation team, Heidi has become an expert on creating hand-made conservation-grade storage supports and enclosures for fossil mammal specimens and we have used her expertise on this project to re-store the Toxodon specimens in our collection.

Using a template as guide, Heidi creates individual boxes for each specimen using acid-free card. She then creates bespoke inserts using Plastazote® foam to fit around the specimens so they do not move in the box whilst the specimens are moved in and out of their storage cupboard. She designs the inserts to show as much of the specimen as possible, whilst keeping it secure. This helps reduce the need for handling the specimens.

Although these boxes are sufficient for most specimens, the larger and heavier specimens require support using more rigid materials which spread and support the weight of the specimens more evenly. For these specimens, the Museum conservation team construct Epopast supports. These supports are made from epoxy resin and provide a strong, rigid support, which can be lined with Plastazote.® In the next stage of this project we will need to take this approach for the Toxodon skull and other large specimens in this collection.

Darwin’s Fossil Mammals on display

Some of the specimens that have been scanned as part of this project are currently on display in Hintze Hall. These specimens needed to be taken off of display to digitise them. This was a good opportunity to check over the specimens to make sure they were still in a good condition.

Looking to the future, we hope to secure funding for the next stage of the Darwin Fossil Mammals digitisation project. This will enable us to digitise the remaining fossil mammals collected by Darwin, but also to fully assess the specimens from a conservation perspective and to make bespoke epopast supports for a selection of them (including the type skull).. An aspiration for this collection would be to precisely document everything that has happened to the specimens from their point of collection to the present day including what was used to repair the specimens at various points in their history and the impact these repairs have had. CT scanning of selected specimens (which will show up hidden structures such as pins inserted into bone to stabilise them) and superimposing them on scans of casts and drawings of the same specimens may help untangle this history. This would enable us to make fully informed decisions about future management of the specimens.

For more information about the digitisation of Darwin’s Fossils please visit To find out how these discoveries sparked Darwin’s theory of evolution please read our latest blog post.

We want to hear from you!

If you are using these 3D models

or have ideas about what you might like to hear about from this project, we would love to hear your thoughts. Get in touch and stay up to date with this project by following @NHM_Digitse@NHMFossilMammal and @NHM_IAC on Twitter.

Darwin’s fossil mammals: discoveries that sparked the theory of evolution | Digital Collections Programme

1) book cover
Adrian Lister’s book, Darwin’s fossils: discoveries that shaped the theory of evolution

Guest blog by Adrian Lister

When I first joined the Museum as a fossil mammal researcher in 2007, I received a set of keys that gave me access to much of the museum’s huge collection.  Browsing one day, I opened an unremarkable cupboard and was startled to find six shelves of fossil bones with a sign reading ‘Charles Darwin, Beagle Voyage’.  Continue reading “Darwin’s fossil mammals: discoveries that sparked the theory of evolution | Digital Collections Programme”

Unique samples in our collection from an island that disappeared | Curator of Petrology

Following my last post in the Curator of Petrology blog The island that disappeared, we take a closer look at the type of volcanic eruption that created the ephemeral island, the rocks produced by this type of eruption, and meet Empedocles – the submarine volcano that gave birth to Graham Island.

Continue reading “Unique samples in our collection from an island that disappeared | Curator of Petrology”

Digitising Darwin’s Discoveries | Digital Collections Programme

3D Scanning Darwin's Fossil Mammals
3D laser scanning Darwin’s Fossil Mammals

In 2014, Professor Adrian Lister began research for his book on the fossils collected by Charles Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle. As part of his research, Professor Lister began to document the complex histories of these specimens from their point of collection to the present day. It soon became clear that the mammalian specimens had not been adequately documented or revised in the 185 years since their initial publication. This has meant that they have not been included in most modern scientific studies. This is despite the fact that the majority of the specimens in this collection are ‘type’ specimens (the reference specimens for that species), essential for scientific study of these species.

Continue reading “Digitising Darwin’s Discoveries | Digital Collections Programme”

What is a Cetacean and why would you scan it? |Digital Collections Programme

Photograph of the skull of Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) being 3D surface scanned.
Using our 3D handheld surface scanners to map the surface of a Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)

‘Cetacea’ is the collective order for all whales, dolphins and porpoises. We have more than 2,500 specimens in the Museum collection, at least 500 from the UK strandings programme. Cetaceans are great indicators of wider ocean health – if there’s a problem lower in the food chain, e.g. plastic pollution, it concentrates in cetaceans. If cetacean populations are healthy, so are our oceans. Continue reading “What is a Cetacean and why would you scan it? |Digital Collections Programme”

The Marsh Awards 2017 – Winners announced! | Earth Sciences

The 2017 Marsh Awards for Mineralogy, Palaeontology and the Best Earth Sciences Book of the Year, run in partnership with the Natural History Museum, took place in the Flett Theatre of the Museum on 8 December 2017.

Winners 2017 Marsh Awards

The Marsh Christian Trust was founded in 1981 as a grant-making body by Brian Marsh. In addition to its grant-making, over the past 30 years the trust has developed an awards scheme to provide recognition to those who work to improve the world we live in.

Recipients of Marsh Awards are always people who make a difference by selflessly contributing their time and energy to causes that they believe in.

Continue reading “The Marsh Awards 2017 – Winners announced! | Earth Sciences”