British Geological Survey
A glass microscope slide from the British Geological Survey preserves a fossil specimen from Chiloe Island, labeled "C. Darwin Esq."
By
updated 1/17/2012 1:29:29 AM ET 2012-01-17T06:29:29

British scientists have found scores of fossils that were collected by the great evolutionary theorist Charles Darwin and his peers but were 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.

Using a flashlight to peer into the drawers and hold up a slide, Falcon-Lang saw one of the first specimens he had picked up was labeled 'C. Darwin Esq."

"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!"

Falcon-Lang's find was a collection of 314 slides of specimens collected by Darwin and other members of his inner circle, including John 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 fungi.

Hooker had assembled the collection of slides while briefly working for the British Geological Survey in 1846, according to Royal Holloway, University of London.

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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 said, 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.

The discovery was made in April, but it has taken "a long time" to figure out the provenance of the slides and photograph all of them, Falcon-Lang said. The slides have now been photographed and will be made available to the public through a new online museum exhibit opening Tuesday.

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."

Dr. John Ludden, executive director of the Geological Survey, called the find a "remarkable" discovery.

"It really makes one wonder what else might be hiding in our collections," he said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 7 signs of evolution in action

  • Image: scroll fragment
    Spencer Arnold  /  Getty Images file

    British naturalist Charles Darwin's groundbreaking 1859 book, "The Origin of Species," proposed the theory that species evolve over time through the process of natural selection. Organisms most suited to their environment survive and reproduce, passing on their advantageous traits to offspring. Organisms that cannot compete go extinct. Though this theory remains a hot potato in the culture wars, it forms the foundation of modern biology. Click the "Next" arrow above to see seven signs of evolution in action.

    — By John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

  • Darwin's finches evolve

    Image: Elah Fortress ruins
    B. Rosemary Grant  /  Science via AP file

    The seed-crushing bills of little songbirds called finches, which were adapted to various niches throughout the Galapagos Islands, proved integral to the formulation of Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. And the birds haven't stopped evolving. For example, the medium ground finch (Geospiza fortis), shown here, recently downsized its beak to exploit small seeds more efficiently after a larger finch arrived on its island and began competing for food. The smaller beaks on the smaller birds allowed them to thrive, while the big birds ate all the big seeds and nearly went extinct, scientists say.

  • Humans influence natural selection

    Image: pottery shards
    CNBC TV

    Is human activity "natural"? Scientists say human activity is indeed affecting the evolution of other species. In one example, the human preference for large snow lotus plants, which are used in traditional Tibetan and Chinese medicine, has meant that only the smaller plants go to seed. Hence, the snow lotus is getting smaller. In another example, scientists have found that human preference for trophy game such as big fish and caribou is driving these species to become smaller and reproduce at younger ages.

  • Human evolution speeding up?

    Image: water flows through remains of Siloam Pool site
    Hulton Archive  /  Getty Images file

    With more people crowding into ever more ecological niches over the past 10,000 years, humans appear to be evolving more rapidly than in the distant past, according to scientists. What's more, as people adapt to different regions, cultures and diets, they are becoming increasingly different from people elsewhere. For example, Europeans have evolved a tolerance for dairy products into adulthood, whereas people in China and most of Africa have not.

  • Butterflies evolve resistance to killer bacteria

    Image: Dead Sea scrolls
    Sylvain Charlat / Science

    A population of tropical butterflies on a South Pacific island evolved resistance to a killer bacteria in the span of a single year — a blink of the eye in evolutionary time. The bacteria infects females and selectively kills males before they hatch. The strategy reduced male Blue Moon butterflies to just 1 percent of the population. But just 10 generations later — a year's time — males made up nearly 40 percent of the population. Scientists said the rebound is due to the evolution of a so-called suppressor gene that keeps the killer bacteria in check.

  • Toxic toad evolves longer legs

    Image: sarcophagus
    Ben Phillips

    A toxic toad, introduced in 1936 to wipe out a beetle species wreaking havoc on Australia's sugar cane crop, has become an uncontrollable pest itself, evolving longer legs to help it hop across the country at an ever-increasing clip. For their first 20 years or so in the country, they spread at a pace of 6 miles per year. They now cruise at about 30 miles per year. Why? Researchers found that the toads leading the cross-country march had legs that were 6 percent longer than those of the stragglers. The added length gives more speed, which permits the long-legged toads to secure the best habitat at the newly conquered terrain.

  • Intermediate form supports flatfish evolution

    Image: drainage channel

    Flounder, sole, halibut and other flatfish have long struck biologists as evolutionary oddities: Both their eyes are on one side of the head, an adaptation that allows them to lie flat on the ocean bottom while keeping their eyes on the lookout for passing prey. The transition happens in the youth of flatfish, one eye migrating up and over the top of the head. Opponents of evolution argued that this curious anatomy could not have evolved gradually, as suggested by the theory of natural selection. That's because there would be no advantage for an intermediate form — a fish with an only partially migrated eye. But now scientists have found those intermediate forms in museum collections. The 50 million-year-old fossils, including Heteronectes chantei shown here, have a partially displaced eye.

  • Lizards lose limbs

    Image: archaeological site in Masada
    Mark Hutchinson

    Australian lizards called skinks are dropping their limbs to become more like snakes. And, according to a genetic family tree, some skinks have gone snaky in just 3.6 million years, relatively fast in evolutionary time. Scientists said the skinks' lifestyle appears to be driving the change: They spend most of their time swimming through sand or soil. Limbs are not only unnecessary for this, they may be a hindrance. Once a skink goes snaky, they never go back, the researchers add. One of the snakelike skinks is shown here.

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