The fossils were lost, and nobody even knew it. For ages, a stockpile of over 300 specimens — including several collected by Charles Darwin on his historic Voyage of the Beagle — has been changing hands throughout England, hidden away inside a nondescript cabinet.
Now, 165 years later, the fossils (and their history) have been (re)discovered. And it's all thanks to one curious paleontologist.
The paleontologist in question is Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang — a researcher in the department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London — whose studies had led him to the British Geological Survey headquarters in Nottinghamshire. It was there, while searching for an entirely different set of fossils, that he happened upon a dusty old cabinet. Inside it were drawers, labeled simply "‘unregistered fossil plants."
"I can't resist a mystery," said Falcon-Lang, "so I pulled one open. What I found inside made my jaw drop."
Falcon-Lang had stumbled upon 314 beautiful glass slides. Preserved within each one was a thin, translucent sheet of fossilized plant or fungus. "Almost the first slide I picked up was labeled ‘C. Darwin Esq.' This turned out to be a piece of fossil wood collected by Darwin during his famous Voyage of the Beagle in 1834," he said. [The specimen, a piece from a 40-million-year-old fossil tree from Chiloe Island, Chile, is featured here.] So far, 17 of the rediscovered specimens have been verified as Darwin's.
Further Investigation into the origin of the specimens in the cabinet revealed that they had been left in the care of Darwin's close friend, botanist Joseph Hooker, in 1846; they were lost, however, when Hooker failed to catalogue them properly before departing on a Himalayan expedition. In 1851, the fossils were moved to the Museum of Practical Geology in Piccadilly; in 1935, they were transferred to the Geological Museum in South Kensington; and by 1985, the specimens had found their way to the British Geological Survey headquarters, where they were finally discovered by Falcon-Lang. Over the course of 165 years, the fossils — and their significance — had slowly been forgotten.
A number of the slides (including the one up top, which features a cross section through a cone of a 300-million-year-old club moss tree) have been made accessible to the public through an online museum exhibit, hosted by the British Geological Society.