Darwin's Lost Fossils; Treasure Trove Found by Chance in Dusty Cabinet

Daily Mail (London), January 17, 2012 | Go to article overview

Darwin's Lost Fossils; Treasure Trove Found by Chance in Dusty Cabinet


Byline: Tamara Cohen Science Reporter

FOR 160 years they lay forgotten in a dusty cabinet, lost to science because they had been hastily filed away.

Now a treasure trove of fossils collected by the young Charles Darwin has been discovered by chance.

They were collected in the 1830s in South America during his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle.

Experts say the find sheds new light on this formative period for Darwin, then in his 20s, whose study of tropical plants and wildlife set the stage for his ground-breaking theory of evolution.

The fossils, neatly pressed on to slides, some bearing Darwin's signature, were discovered by Dr Howard Falcon-Lang, a palaeontologist at Royal Holloway, University of London.

He was searching for some other fossils at the British Geological Survey's cavernous storeroom in Keyworth, Nottinghamshire. Dr Falcon-Lang came upon an old cabinet, with drawers inside labelled 'unregistered fossil plants', and decided to take a look.

'I can't resist a mystery so I pulled one open,' he said. 'What I found inside made my jaw drop! Inside were hundreds of beautiful glass slides. Almost the first I picked up was labelled "C. Darwin Esq".

'This is an amazing snapshot into Darwin's working life. This was one of the most exciting periods in the history of science, forming the mind of the man who would develop the theory of evolution, which would change the world.'

The 314 slides found by Dr Falcon-Lang include 40 million-year-old plants from a remote island off the coast of Chile.

Another shows a towering tree-sized fungus which covered the Earth 400 million years ago when the climate was so hot there was no ice even at the Poles.

The slides were made by slicing and polishing the fossils into translucent sheets and then placing them between two glass plates so they could be studied under a microscope. Dr Falcon-Lang added: 'There are 100 million-year-old fossil trees from the latter age of the dinosaurs. …

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