1. Origins of the solar system

    How old is the Earth? How did it come to have water? Meteorites may hold clues to these age-old questions.

    4.6 billion years ago

    Dr Caroline Smith, meteorite expert

    1. Wold Cottage meteorite

      The Wold Cottage meteorite, which fell in 1795 near Wold Cottage farm, Yorkshire, was the first recorded meteorite fall in the UK.

      Its discovery helped confirm that meteorites come from space. Previously, many people believed that rocks that fell from the sky had been ejected into the air by nearby volcanoes - but there are no active volcanoes in Yorkshire.

      This prompted scientist Joseph Banks to investigate. He commissioned a worldwide comparison of these stones from the sky and found them to be similar to each other but not to rocks on Earth.

      This helped ignite scholarly interest in meteorites and their origins, eventually leading to the development of meteoritics as a discipline.

    2. Mervyn Herbert Nevil Story-Maskelyne

      Mervyn Herbert Nevil Story-Maskelyne (1823-1911) was a driving force in the development of optical mineralogy - the study of minerals and rocks under a microscope.

      Working at the Museum as Keeper of Mineralogy from 1857, when the post was created, until 1880, he was one of the first people to study meteorites by slicing them into thin sections for the microscope.

      During this time, he also greatly expanded the Museum's mineral collection, tripling its size in his first six years and adding at least 43,000 specimens in total.

    3. George Thurland Prior

      George Thurland Prior (1862-1936) was one of the first scientists to classify meteorites based on their chemical composition. He worked at the Museum from 1887 until his retirement in 1927 - initially in the laboratories, then as Keeper of Mineralogy from 1909.

      While in the laboratory, he helped to describe many new minerals from around the world, but when he became Keeper of Mineralogy, he turned his attention to meteorites.

      Prior established a classification of meteorites according to their iron and nickel content, and in 1923 published a catalogue of all of the meteorites then known to science. His laws are still used today as a basis for classifying meteorites.

    4. Vigarano meteorite

      The Vigarano meteorite fell near the town of Vigarano Pieve in Italy in 1910.

      It is a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite, meaning it is composed mostly of rock, rather than metal, and contains round grains called chondrules. Many carbonaceous meteorites also contain high levels of carbon compounds, hence the name 'carbonaceous'. They show visible white patches that are rich in calcium and aluminium.

      There are many kinds of carbonaceous chondrites, and the Vigarano meteorite is the type specimen for the CV group of meteorites - the original specimen on which the description of the whole group is based.

      Research on these meteorites has revealed that they formed around 4.6 billion years ago, around the same time as the solar system. This makes them particularly valuable for research into the early solar system.

      However, CV meteorites also contain microscopic diamonds. Analysis suggests these diamonds are older than both the Earth and the Sun. This means these components came from outside our solar system, and could be the product of ancient stars.

    5. Cold Bokkeveld meteorite

      The fall of the Cold Bokkeveld meteorite in 1838 was the first observed fall of a CM2 meteorite - a group of rocky, carbon-containing meteorites.

      Since then, there have been a further 14 observed CM2 meteorite falls, although most of these meteorites were smaller than Cold Bokkeveld.

      In fact, many of the micrometeorites that fall to Earth are made of CM-like material, meaning that the Earth accumulates many tonnes of it every year.

      Scientists have also found water-containing minerals inside these meteorites, suggesting that the ancient bodies they broke away from held liquid water. These meteorites therefore could have brought this water - and potentially the building blocks of life - to our planet.

    6. Ivuna meteorite

      Two essential building blocks for life are water and organic compounds (molecules made of carbon and hydrogen). These are found wherever there is life on Earth, as well as in meteorites such as Ivuna.

      This makes the meteorites vitally important in unravelling the origins of life on Earth - they could even tell us about life on other planets. Some theories suggest the elements for life arrived on Earth in meteorites.

      Ivuna is also the type specimen of the very rare CI class of meteorite. CI meteorites are extremely rich in volatile components that are easily lost when they come into contact with the atmosphere. Fortunately, the Ivuna meteorite has been kept in a sealed nitrogen environment ever since it fell in 1938, protecting it from Earth's atmosphere and making it invaluable for research.

    7. Nakhla meteorite

      Working with the Nakhla meteorite, which fell in Egypt in 1911, Museum scientist Dr Robert (Bob) Hutchison discovered it was younger than most of the other meteorites in the collection. This finding in 1975 led to the idea that some meteorites, including Nakhla, came from Mars.

      Dr Hutchinson also identified water in the meteorite, making him and his collaborators the first to identify water in a Martian meteorite, although the discovery was largely overlooked at the time.

      This work was done with increasingly sophisticated equipment at the Museum, from simple optical microscopes to a scanning electron microscope and an electron microprobe.

    8. Tissint meteorite

      The Tissint meteorite, which fell in 2011, is the Museum's largest Martian meteorite. This piece weighs 1.1 kilogrammes.

      Scientists know it came from Mars because it contains tiny bubbles of gas that have the same chemical makeup as the planet's atmosphere.

      By looking at the meteorite's exposure to cosmic rays, we can also tell it was ejected from Mars's surface approximately 700,000 years ago.

      Martian meteorites are absolutely critical to our study of Mars because they are the only physical samples of the planet we have on Earth. While many missions have landed on the surface of Mars, allowing us to study the planet remotely, these meteorites permit much more detailed and accurate analyses of the planet's composition.

  1. Charting Earth's evolution

    Through careful observation and description geology pioneers revolutionised the way we study the rocks and minerals beneath our feet.

    4.5 billion years ago

    Prof Richard Herrington, mineralogist

    1. William Smith's geological map

      'William Smith was probably the first person to realise that geological strata could be mapped using the fossils they contained. It was an incredibly important thing because geological mapping is now crucial in things like mineral resource exploration and civil engineering.' Dr Paul Taylor, palaeobiologist

      William Smith was the first to produce a geological map of an entire nation. While working as a surveyor and visiting various coal mines in Somerset, UK, he noticed that certain fossils were only found in particular layers of rock, or strata. He used this principle to trace strata across the British Isles, eventually publishing his completed map in 1815.

      The map was meticulously hand-coloured, using an innovative colour and shading system to represent each of the 23 rock layers.

      Although it failed to make the impact Smith had hoped with scientists at the time, the map provided valuable information about the subsurface for canal builders, miners, landowners and agriculturists. The map is now considered an incredible achievement, and Smith's names for strata are still used by geologists today.

    2. Smith Collection ammonites

      'Smith has been justifiably referred to as the father of English geology. This ammonite is still used to mark the base of Jurassic rocks in Britain.' Dr Paul Taylor, palaeobiologist

      At 200 million years old, these are among the earliest recorded British ammonites. Despite their great age, the fossils have well-preserved mother-of-pearl on their shells. Mother-of-pearl formed the original outer layer of the living creatures' shells - it usually wears away over time, but can be preserved in fine clays.

      The ammonites are part of William Smith's collection, which contains fossils and rocks collected across the British Isles. Smith identified layers of rock by the fossils they contained, using this principle to trace layers across great distances and map the surface geology of England and Wales for the first time. The map was remarkably accurate, and many of Smith's fossil associations still hold true today.

    3. Nevil Story-Maskelyne microscope

      During his first six years as Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum, Mervyn Herbert Nevil Story-Maskelyne tripled the size of the meteorite collection. He was also a driving force in the development of optical mineralogy - the detailed study of minerals and rocks under a microscope.

      This microscope was designed by Maskelyne and built in 1863. It was the first to include a rotating stage for viewing minerals under cross-polarised light.

      When light is polarised, it can only vibrate in one direction. The way the light interacts with a mineral helps reveal its underlying crystal structure, a property that cannot be determined by the naked eye. Mineralogists today still use cross-polarised light microscopy as a preliminary tool to identify and classify minerals.

    4. Optical indicatrix model

      'It may look like a potato with sticks in it, but this optical indicatrix model was instrumental in working out the mathematics of optics in mineral microscopy.' Mike Rumsey, mineralogist

      This putty ellipsoid was made by Sir Lazarus Fletcher, Keeper of Mineralogy (1880-1909) at the Natural History Museum. It represents the optical indicatrix, a geometric figure used to describe how light is transmitted by a crystal. The two sticks marked in blue can be moved along a groove, depending on the mineral being modelled. The other three sticks are fixed in place.

      The model was part of early work on optical phenomena associated with crystals. Studies revealed that the optical properties of crystals were fundamentally linked to their symmetry and physical properties.

      One such optical phenomenon is double refraction, where a light ray entering a crystal is split into two rays. The earliest observations of this were in the mineral calcite. When an object is viewed through a well-formed calcite crystal, it appears as two identical images side-by-side. If the crystal is rotated, only one image moves, and at a specific angle the two images merge.

      A key development in explaining phenomena such as double refraction was understanding the link between the optical properties of crystals and their symmetry. These studies revealed that the seven mineral crystal systems fell into three optical classes: isotropic, uniaxial and biaxial. Out of these careful observations came the science of crystal optics, inspiring the invention of many scientific and everyday instruments, including polarisers and optical switches.

    5. Philip Rashleigh's mineral collection illustrations

      'Rashleigh's Specimens of British Minerals was a major contribution to mineralogical literature, history and illustration. It remains one of the most significant early visual records of minerals, some of which were previously unknown or undescribed.' Andrea Hart, Library Special Collections Manager

      Philip Rashleigh was a keen amateur mineralogist who amassed one of the earliest and finest private collections ever assembled. His comprehensive collection contains extremely rare specimens, including minerals from mines that have since been decommissioned.

      Although he knew that accurately representing the sheen and colour of minerals would be a difficult task, Rashleigh saw scientific value in producing illustrations of his specimens. He commissioned Henry Bone and other artists to draw some of his finest specimens in a series of two publications. This was to be the first illustrated book on British minerals, and is still considered one of the finest.

      After Rashleigh's death in 1811, the mineral collection changed hands several times and was acquired by the Museum in 1964.

    6. Niobium type specimen

      'Up until 1801, a lot of our mineral collection was Sir Hans Sloane's curious stuff. But from this point on, researchers started using and looking at the collection from a scientific perspective. It was the beginning of us becoming a mineralogical research institute, rather than just being custodians of pretty things.' Mike Rumsey, mineralogist

      This piece of columbite belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, whose enormous collection was gifted to the British Museum when he died in 1753. His collection, which included this mineral, eventually formed much of the original material in the Natural History Museum.

      The mineral sat in the British Museum's collection for years, described only as 'a very heavy black stone... with golden streaks'. Nearly 50 years later, British Museum geochemist Charles Hatchett came across the columbite and analysed its composition. He found that it contained an element previously unknown to science. He named the element columbium (Cb), but it was later renamed to niobium (Nb).

  1. The rise and fall of prehistoric worlds

    The fossil record provides an imperfect but invaluable window into the past, revealing the evolution of life on our planet.

    3642-66 million years ago

    Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

    1. Apex chert

      'These microscopic structures are so intriguing, and their biotic origin is so hotly debated, because at the time they were discovered they were considered to be the very first fossil evidence of oxygen-producing, photosynthetic life.' Dr Peta Hayes, Curator of Palaeobotany

      This piece of chert from Pilbara, Western Australia is around 3,462 million years old. It is still unclear whether it contains the world's oldest fossil evidence of life on Earth, in the form of microbes. The alternative theory is that the structures it contains are just mineral growths that resemble simple organisms.

      The Apex chert caused a flurry of excitement in 1993 when it was first described by US scientist Bill Schopf, on sabbatical at the Natural History Museum. Schopf entered the type specimen into the Museum's collection, where it still sits today.

      The most recent analysis of the Apex chert supports the theory that the tiny structures are mineralogical, not biological. But the debate continues and the specimen is still in demand for further study. The Apex chert 'fossils' ignited conversations about the age of life on Earth, fundamental to understanding the mechanisms and timescales of evolution.

    2. <i>Cooksonia</i> plant fossils

      '[Lang's work] is exceptional in its botanical and geological importance. Considering the unpromising nature of the material, the information obtained is amazing.' AC Seward FRS

      At 415 million years old, this tiny structure is one of the earliest known land-dwelling plants. It was one of many unusual plant fossils uncovered in and around Herefordshire, England. The ancient plants lacked leaves of any kind and measured no more than 6 centimetres in length.

      The fossils, with their odd features and poor preservation, were cast aside by most scientists - except for British palaeobotanist William Henry Lang. In 1937, Lang set out to study the unpromising remains with new microscopy techniques. Using his talent for identifying and classifying fossil plants, he proved that the fossils were a goldmine of data about the earliest life on land.

      Even though the plants had been transported and buried in marine or river sediments, Lang was able to show they lived on land. He named the plant Cooksonia, a genus that has since come to represent the original body plan of early land plants.

      Lang identified and extracted spores in the fossils that measured just 25 to 38 nanometres - billionths of a metre - in diameter, a feat that would have been technologically difficult at the time. This proved the plants had spore-bearing organs.

      Scientists are still collecting and studying Cooksonia fossils, confirming and extending Lang's original theories.

    3. <i>Rhyniognatha hirsti</i>

      'This is an extraordinary fossil, not just because it is the earliest insect known, but because the structure of its jaws is similar to flying insects today, suggesting an early origin of flight.' Claire Mellish, Curator of Palaeoarthropods

      At 410 million years old, Rhyniognatha hirsti is the world's oldest known insect. Insects probably evolved around 80 million years earlier, when plants were colonising the land for the first time.

      This fossil is one of the earliest land-dwelling arthropods, a group that includes insects, spiders and millipedes. It provides a unique insight into a time of major change in ecological diversity and animal physiology.

      Insects are thought to have evolved from crustaceans. They were the first animals to develop flight, allowing them to adapt and diversify during times of global climate change. Insects are now the most species-rich group of animals on Earth.

      The R. hirsti insect is preserved inside a piece of Rhynie chert, a glass-like Scottish rock that contains exceptionally preserved fossils. Found near the village of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire, the Rhynie chert fossils offer a window into past at a time when the first plants and animals were making the leap onto land.

      A flurry of scientific activity accompanied the first discovery of Rhynie chert fossils between 1910 and 1913. Since then, further collecting and analysis have revealed a diverse range of fossils, including primitive plants, algae, fungi, lichen and arthropods. As scientists apply the latest imaging techniques, genetic analyses and understanding to Rhynie chert specimens, we are learning more about the diversity of early life on land and how organisms interacted with each other.

    4. <i>Hylonomus lyelli</i>

      'Hylonomus records a key moment in evolutionary history when amniotes - creatures that encapsulate their young in a complex set of membranes, either within the mother or within an egg - first developed the water-tight skins and shelled eggs that allowed them to invade the land so successfully.' Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

      Hylonomous lyelli lived 312 million years ago, making it the earliest known true reptile. It was a small, lizard-like animal that may have used its sharp teeth to eat insects.

      Fossils like this one provide evidence of a time in Earth's history when vertebrates - animals with backbones - were finally able to leave the water and fully colonise dry land. The first reptiles diversified into an extremely successful group that at one time included the dinosaurs and huge marine reptiles.

    5. <i>Iguanodon</i> teeth

      'The discovery of dinosaurs underlined how different life had been in the geological past and, of course, they still fire our imaginations today.' Dr Paul Taylor, palaeobiologist

      Although he was a medical doctor, Dr Gideon Mantell had a keen interest in geology. He uncovered a number of unusual fossils in Sussex during the nineteenth century.

      His wife Mary Mantell found these fossil teeth in a pile of rubble while accompanying him on his rounds. Dr Mantell struggled to identify the animal they belonged to, but would eventually interpret them as the remains of an ancient and enormous reptile. He named the species Iguanodon, because its teeth resembled those of the modern iguana.

      This was one of the first described examples of a group of enormous Mesozoic reptiles, later known as the dinosaurs. Despite Dr Mantell's monumental discovery, it is actually Museum founder Sir Richard Owen who is credited with coining the name Dinosauria.

    6. <i>Nyasasaurus parringtoni</i>

      'As the earliest known dinosaur, Nyasasaurus parringtoni gives us the first glimpse of what would become the major group of terrestrial animals for the next 150 million years.' Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

      Nyasasaurus parringtoni lived around 245 million years ago, making it the earliest known dinosaur.

      The Museum holds the type specimen of N. parringtoni - a partial skeleton that includes vertebrae and an arm bone. Based on these fossils, N. parringtoni was formally described and named a new species in 2012.

      Dinosaurs are distinguished by a number of anatomical quirks, among them the characteristics of their limb bones. This early reptile represents the roots of the dinosaur family tree. Fossils from the period reveal early dinosaurs to be a minor group of unusual, bipedal reptiles, living in a world dominated by other groups.

    7. Assembling a <i>Stegosaurus</i>

      'Stegosaurus fossil finds are rare. Having the world's most complete example here for research means we can begin to uncover the secrets behind the evolution and behaviour of this intriguing dinosaur species.' Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

      The world's most complete Stegosaurus skeleton was unveiled at the Museum in 2014. Scientists estimated the body mass of the animal by digitising more than 300 bones of its skeleton and producing a 3D model. This allowed them to calculate how much the Stegosaurus weighed - as much as a small rhino - which would have influenced how much food it ate and how it walked around.

      Dinosaur skulls are often squashed during the fossilisation process, but the bones of this Stegosaurus skull are all three-dimensional. This makes it one of the most scientifically valuable dinosaur skulls ever found.

      Future studies of the specimen may answer some of our long-held questions about Stegosaurus, including the function of its bony back plates.

    8. <i>Morganucodon</i>

      'The sheer number of well-preserved specimens allows us to ask lots of interesting questions about their palaeobiology, using the latest scientific techniques.' Dr Pip Brewer, Curator of Fossil Mammals.

      Fossils of early mammals are extremely rare, but fissure deposits in south Wales hold a surprising abundance of important fossil fragments. The Museum's Welsh fissure collection contains over 10,000 tiny bones and teeth of two early mammals, Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium, from the beginning of the Jurassic period, 200 million years ago.

      Thanks to these deposits, Morganucodon is one of the best-known early mammals in the world. At 200 million years old, it is also one of the oldest and most primitive. Morganucodon was a small, slender animal that ate insects such as beetles.

      Museum scientists are now using new technology, including synchrotron CT scanning, to learn more about these specimens and further our understanding of early mammal evolution.

    9. <i>Temnodontosaurus platyodon</i>

      'These specimens kick-started many debates over the nature of past life and ecosystems, and fuelled important discussions about deep time and the origins of major animal groups.' Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

      Mary Anning was the world's first professional fossil hunter. She discovered many of the most spectacular specimens of Mesozoic reptiles, fish and invertebrates in Lyme Regis in Dorset, England.

      The huge reptile fossils she presented were unlike anything academics of the time had ever seen. They were the world's first glimpse into a Mesozoic age (225 to 65 million years ago) of giant reptiles on land and under the sea.

      Many of the icthyosaurs and plesiosaurs that now line the Museum's Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery were collected by Anning herself.

    10. <i>Archaeopteryx lithographica</i>

      'Archaeopteryx is truly one of the most important fossils of all time, helping establish a direct evolutionary link between two major groups and fuelling early evolutionary debates.' Prof Paul Barrett, vertebrate palaeontologist

      An icon of evolutionary debate, Archaeopteryx is now generally accepted as the earliest known bird. It was named in 1861, just two years after the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

      The fossils showed traits typical of both birds and reptiles, providing a real-world example of Darwin's predicted transitional forms - species that represent the step between two seemingly distinct groups.

      Archaeopteryx kick-started the debate over whether birds evolved from dinosaurs, and had a major impact on our ideas about evolutionary processes.

  1. The anatomy of the past

    Some key fossils from the last 60 million years display characteristics of living species, helping scientists to classify the extinct creatures.

    800,000-500 years ago

    Prof Adrian Lister, palaeobiologist

    1. Woolly mammoth tooth

      'This was the very beginning of mammoth fossils being studied in Europe. This and other fossils eventually proved the existence of an extinct Pleistocene megafauna in geologically quite recent times.' Dr Paul Taylor, palaeobiologist

      This Siberian woolly mammoth tooth was one of the first mammoth fossils brought to Europe and studied by naturalists. Sir Hans Sloane examined the fossil tooth in 1728 and added it to his ever-expanding collection of worldly objects.

      Sloane realised the tooth came from a relative of modern elephants, but interpreted this as meaning Siberia had experienced a tropical climate before the biblical flood killed the inhabitants. Other scholars disagreed with Sloane and developed their own theories.

      Specimens like this one kick-started the scientific study of mammoth fossils in Europe, igniting debates about the evolution of extinct megafauna. The number of plates in the tooth indicates that it belonged to a species that is rare in Siberia, so the specimen is of considerable scientific as well as historic significance.

    2. Mastodon skeleton

      'Owen realised the mastodon skeleton was vastly too big because he compared it with modern elephant skeletons. He was one of first people who really thought about reconstructing skeletons using modern analogue animals.' Prof Adrian Lister, palaeobiologist

      Albert Koch unearthed hundreds of huge bones in Missouri, USA, in 1840. He reconstructed a skeleton poorly, padding it with extra bones and displaying the tusks pointing downwards. Koch named the creature Missourium, even though it was very similar to previous finds of creatures called mastodons.

      The monstrous skeleton was exhibited around the USA, and in 1841 was shipped across the Atlantic and displayed at Piccadilly in London. Richard Owen, then employed by the Royal College of Surgeons, came to see the reconstructed animal and was immediately suspicious of its size and the placement of its tusks.

      Owen persuaded the British Museum to purchase Koch's entire collection of bones, including the mastodon skeleton. He then disassembled the skeleton and remounted it, removing the extra bones and flipping the tusks into their correct positions.

      The Mammut americanum skeleton still stands in the Natural History Museum galleries, unchanged since Owen reassembled it.

    3. Fossil moa bone

      'Owen's work is a wonderful demonstration of how knowledge and comparative anatomy can be used to interpret fossils of extinct creatures like the moa.' Dr Paul Taylor, palaeobiologist

      Museum founder Sir Richard Owen was famous for being able to look at small pieces of bone and correctly reconstruct animals. The bone Owen is holding in this portrait was sent to him from New Zealand in 1839.

      Initially he had just one broken piece of bone to look at, but Owen used his anatomical knowledge to infer that it came from an enormous bird that could not fly and had gone extinct. It was a bold theory, as such a bird had never been seen in neither nature nor the fossil record. But Owen was proved correct when palaeontologists later found complete skeletons of the giant flightless bird, which stood up to 3.6 metres tall. Owen named the species Dinornis novaezealandiae.

    4. <i>Megaloceros</i> antlers

      'The antlers of Megaloceros show the amount of resource - perhaps even a handicap - that animals are willing to give to sexual selection.' Prof Adrian Lister, palaeobiologist

      Antlers of the now-extinct Megaloceros played a role in historical arguments about an early evolutionary idea: orthogenesis.

      Now considered an outdated theory, orthogenesis is the idea that organisms are compelled to evolve in one direction due to an internal driving force. This is different to natural selection, in which organisms evolve in response to environmental pressures, such as climate change or food availability.

      Some scientists pointed to giant deer antlers as evidence for orthogenesis. The antlers had evolved to be so large that it was difficult to see how they could be useful to the animal, and were believed instead the result of evolution pointing in the direction of ever bigger antlers.

      Once a popular theory, orthogenesis fell out of fashion as evidence overwhelmingly supported the theory of natural selection. We now know that the giant deer's antlers could be used in fighting. The larger the antlers, the more likely a male would be to 'win' a female and reproduce. This demonstrates the great power of sexual selection in driving evolution.

      More recently, Museum scientists extracted DNA from Megaloceros fossils and found that the giant deer are related to modern fallow deer.

    5. Giant sloth jaw

      'When on board H.M.S. 'Beagle,' as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent.' Charles Darwin, in On the Origin of Species

      Charles Darwin found this sloth jaw in 1832, while exploring the geology of Argentina during his voyage aboard HMS Beagle.

      The jaw resembled that of the living sloth, but it was much larger. The discovery of a now-extinct animal in an area that its living relative inhabited was a light-bulb moment for Darwin.

      After the voyage, he spent many years thinking about the relationship between extinct and living species and the idea of descent with modification, which could have led to the diversification of sloths in South America before the large ones went extinct. These thoughts were to become the basis of his theory of evolution by natural selection, a radical idea that was met with great scepticism from many scholars of the time.

      Richard Owen named the sloth Mylodon darwinii in honour of the man who discovered it.

  1. Human origins

    Thanks to the fossil record, we know that humans have evolved over millions of years, through a complex process of change.

    500,000-10,000 years ago

    Prof Chris Stringer, human origins expert

    1. Boxgrove tibia

      At around 500,000 years old, this Homo heidelbergensis tibia (shinbone) is one of the oldest human fossils ever discovered in Britain.

      It was excavated in 1993 from a quarry site in Boxgrove, West Sussex, by a team led by University College London.

      The bone has been chewed at one end by an ancient carnivore, but scientists can still use it to make estimates about the individual's build and gender. From its length, width and density they can estimate that the person was male and, standing about 1.8 metres tall, would have been larger and more robust than an average modern human.

      This build suggests Homo heidelbergensis was suited to a cooler environment than those found in Africa, fitting with the idea that the species adapted to new conditions as it spread across the world. The adaptations are also similar to those found in Neanderthals, lending evidence to the idea that Homo heidelbergensis gave rise to Neanderthals and modern humans.

    2. Clacton spear

      Made around 420,000 years ago and unearthed in Clacton-on-Sea, Essex, this yew spear point is the oldest preserved wooden spear in the world.

      Scientists believe that its owner, perhaps a member of the species Homo heidelbergensis, would have used this as a lethal weapon. They would have needed to spear their prey at close range in order to generate enough force to pierce the animal's skin. Modifications to the spear, thought to have been made by flint tools, were used to shape the weapon.

      Similar spears, made mainly from spruce, have been found in Schöningen, Germany, among the remains of horses dating from around 300,000 years ago.

    3. <i>Homo heidelbergensis</i> skull

      This skull was the first early human fossil discovered in Africa.

      It belongs to Homo heidelbergensis, which, along with its predecessor Homo erectus, was one of the first human species to live across large areas of the world. Homo heidelbergensis fossils have been discovered in Africa and across Europe.

      Homo heidelbergensis became established as a species around 600,000 years ago. As populations separated and encountered new environments, regional differences began to emerge.

      These populations may have given rise to later species such as Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) in Europe, and modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa.

      Homo heidelbergensis fossils show a mix of Homo erectus features and later human characteristics. In some regions, Homo heidelbergensis became more adapted to the cold than previous humans and had an average brain capacity almost as large as humans today. This skull, approximately 300,000 years old, has a capacity of 1,280 cubic centimetres - the current average is 1,350 cubic centimetres.

    4. Adult female Neanderthal skull

      This is the first known adult skull of a Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis) ever discovered.

      It was found in a quarry in Gibraltar in 1848 - eight years before a similar skull in Germany's Neander Valley was discovered, and sixteen years before that skull was named as an extinct human species separate from us.

      This skull's significance was therefore not understood at the time, but after the Neander Valley discovery in 1856, it was re-examined and recognised as belonging to the same extinct human species.

      Since then, scientists have explored Gibraltar further and found evidence that Neanderthals inhabited this area for tens of thousands of years, likely due to the mild and stable climate. This region may have been one of the last places in which Neanderthals survived.

    5. Cheddar man

      This skull, discovered in Gough's Cave in Somerset, UK, belonged to a male commonly known as Cheddar Man.

      At about 10,000 years old, his is the oldest nearly complete modern human (Homo sapiens) skeleton ever found in Britain.

      From the presence of wisdom teeth in his jaw, scientists can tell he was an adult male. The rest of his skeleton suggests he was around 166 centimetres tall and relatively slender.

      The hole in his forehead, above his right eye, could have been the site of an infection that may have killed him. This infection may have spread from the sinuses or been caused by an injury to the head.

    6. Skull cup

      No one lived in Britain 20,000 years ago because the region was largely covered by ice. As the climate warmed about 15,000 years ago, plants, animals and humans began to return.

      This skull belongs to a group of hunter-gatherers who migrated into Britain from nearby mainland Europe. At that time, the climate was only beginning to warm up, so there was still a lot of water held in the ice caps. This meant that sea levels were lower and it was possible to walk from mainland Europe to Britain.

      The skull is one of a number of human bones, belonging to adults and children, found in Gough's Cave in Somerset, UK. Many of the bones show clear evidence of cannibalism. For example, shoulder bones and ribs were cracked open and gnawed to extract marrow, and skulls were shaped into cups or bowls. Scientists believe these people could have been cannibalised as part of a ritual practice.

      This skull cup shows clear cut marks and dents, revealing it was thoroughly cleaned of any soft tissue shortly after death. After the bones of the face and the base of the skull were removed, it was painstakingly shaped into a cup.

      Gough's Cave therefore provides a fascinating insight into the culture of the modern humans (Homo sapiens) who lived there around 14,700 years ago.

  1. Early natural history

    For centuries, natural historians have observed and recorded the world around them, contributing to our understanding of life on Earth.


    Paul Cooper, Special Collections Librarian

    1. <i>Historia Naturalis</i> by Pliny the Elder

      'The more I observe nature, the less prone I am to consider any statement about her to be impossible.' Pliny the Elder

      Compiled by Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) but published 14 centuries later in 1469, Historia Naturalis was the first printed book on natural history. It is thought to contain at least 30,000 pieces of information, touching upon all knowledge of the natural world during Pliny's time. Its breadth of subject matter made it a model for all later encyclopaedias.

      It would have been an enormous undertaking - Historia Naturalis consists of 37 books on topics ranging from astronomy to zoology. For example, volume three looks at the animal kingdom, with separate books on aquatic creatures, snakes, insects, birds and land animals.

      Pliny studied many of these subjects from the perspective of our interaction with nature. He dedicated entire books to subjects such as agriculture and viticulture - the study and production of grapes.

      The Museum's Library holds one of the 100 copies printed in 1469, making it the oldest published book in the Museum's collections. It is also Pliny's last and only surviving work, as he died in AD 79 in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

    2. <i>The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes</i> by John Gerard

      '[W]hat greater delight is there than to behold the Earth apparelled with plants?' John Gerard

      Herbals are books that describe the appearance and medicinal properties of plants. They were predominantly used by early doctors as guides for prescribing and preparing ointments and medicines. The earliest known herbals date back to the ancient Greeks, who compiled catalogues of plants with healing properties.

      The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes, written by John Gerard (1545-1612) and published in 1597, expands on this tradition. It notes not just medicinal but culinary uses for plants, as well as their habitats, physical descriptions and seasons. Gerard saw the catalogue as a means of preserving botanical knowledge for all.

      After Gerard died, his book was revised and extended by botanist Thomas Johnson, resulting in two later editions, published in 1633 and 1636.

      The Herball is notable for featuring a number of plants that we now take for granted, but were new to Europeans in the late-sixteenth century - for example, the potato plant, which can be seen in the frontispiece to the book. This illustration is one of the earliest depictions of a potato.

    3. <i>Micrographia</i> by Robert Hooke

      'By the help of microscopes, there is nothing so small, as to escape our inquiry.' Robert Hooke

      Using a microscope of his own construction, English scientist Robert Hooke (1635-1703) discovered a virtually unexplored world. Through Micrographia, he shared his observations of previously unknown tiny organisms and new details of larger life usually beyond the reach of the naked eye.

      Published in 1665, the book contains 66 observations on a wide range of topics, from fossils to fungi, accompanied by detailed text and accurate illustrations engraved by Hooke himself. Many of his observations of everyday organisms led to a new understanding of their mechanisms. For example, he examined the leaves of stinging nettles and found sharp, silica needles that can pierce skin. Experimenting on himself, Hooke saw a fluid being forced up through these needles and into the skin, which explained how the plants deliver their painful sting.

      Micrographia also included the first use of the word 'cell' in the context of a living thing. By examining thin sections of cork with his microscope, Hooke saw a series of little chambers (or 'cells'). These, we now know, are the non-living cell walls that remain after cells die off.

    4. <i>Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium</i> by Maria Sibylla Merian

      'Art and nature shall always be wrestling until they eventually conquer one another so that the victory is the same stroke and line: that which is conquered, conquers at the same time.' Maria Sibylla Merian

      Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) was a German naturalist and one of the first scientists to depict the life cycles of insects and the plants on which they feed. Her eye for detail, interest in first-hand observation and drive to explore the unknown significantly contributed to the advancement of entomology in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

      Merian's highly acclaimed book, Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium, was first published in 1705. The work highlighted the life cycles of insects from Surinam, now the Republic of Suriname.

      Many of the depicted insects and plants were new or little known to European scientists. The book would therefore have been many people's introduction to plants such as pineapples, pomegranates, bananas, guavas and cashews, as well as the insects that live on them.

      Merian's detailed work was held in high esteem by many within the scientific community and beyond. For example, Carl Linnaeus referred to her exquisite illustrations for several plants and over 100 animal species in his seminal work on the classification of the natural world.

    5. <i>Locupletissimi Rerum Naturalium Thesauri Accurata Descriptio</i> by Albertus Seba

      Locupletissimi Rerum Naturalium Thesauri Accurata Descriptio, also known as Seba's Thesaurus, originated as a way for the pharmacist and zoologist Albertus Seba (1665-1736) to showcase his vast natural history collections.

      Initially published in 1734, it was internationally renowned throughout the eighteenth century, and almost 300 years later the book and collections still have a significant influence on scientific study. In fact, some of Seba's specimens now reside at the Museum, including anacondas, bats, tigers and fish.

      The four volumes contain 449 lifelike depictions of specimens, sometimes in a contextual background similar to those found in Maria Sybilla Merian's work. The first volume focuses on the flora and fauna of Asia and South America, while snakes dominate the second volume. The third concentrates on marine life and features a tremendous variety of scallops, squids, sea urchins and fish, while the final volume covers mostly insects, minerals and fossils.

      Carl Linnaeus used many of the original specimens in Seba's collection in his classification system. He later referred to Seba's work in subsequent research more than 250 times. In addition, a good deal of Seba's material also became type specimens - the original specimens on which new species descriptions are based.

    6. Edward Tyson's chimpanzee

      '[I]f we would understand how 'tis that Nature gives Life and Motion to these Automata, we must unloose the Case, and [...] observe how she joyns them all together.' Edward Tyson

      Edward Tyson (1651-1708) is regarded as the father of comparative anatomy, the scientific discipline that studies the similarities and differences between different species.

      For instance, his work on porpoises revealed that while they looked like fish on the outside, their internal organs and skeletons were more similar to four-legged land animals, such as dogs. Tyson began to realise that these animals formed a group - a concept that wasn't formally recognised until Linnaeus defined the concept of mammals in 1758.

      Tyson was also one of the first people to draw comparisons between humans and non-human animals. This line of thinking would have been incendiary at the time as it challenged the idea that humans are distinct from the rest of the animal world.

      By dissecting a chimpanzee that had been brought to England, Tyson discovered it was more similar to a human than to a monkey, essentially identifying that chimpanzees belonged to a new group of animals: the apes. This work laid the foundation for later theories of evolution.

  1. Naming nature

    Botanist Carl Linnaeus revolutionised the naming of living things by making scientific names short, easy to remember and universally recognisable.

    1672 -1820

    Dr Sandy Knapp, botanist

    1. Carl Linnaeus

      Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus revolutionised the naming of living things by making scientific names short, easy to remember and universally recognisable. Linnaeus gave plants two Latin names, one for genus and one for species, together known as a binomial name. He originally called the species name 'the trivial name'. Prior to this, scientific names for species were often long and unwieldy. For example, the humble tomato, which was called Solanum caule inermi herbaceo, foliis pinnatis incisis, racemis simplicibus, became Solanum lycopersicum.

      Linnaeus revealed his new binomial naming system in the catalogue of plants Species Plantarum, which he published in 1753. The plants described were specimens and illustrations found in the collections of great collectors such as Dutch businessman George Clifford, botanists and travellers Dr Paul Hermann and Sir Hans Sloane, and early naturalist Albertus Seba. Linnaeus gave binomial names to animals five years later in 1758.

      Linnaeus encouraged his students to travel the world and bring back new and exciting specimens for him to study - people like Daniel Solander, who sailed with botanist Sir Joseph Banks on Cook's voyage to Australasia on HMS Endeavour.

      Linnaeus spent his life grouping living things into defined hierarchies and giving them individual names. From 1753 until his death in 1778, he named thousands of plants and animals in this way. This binomial system was adopted by other scientists and became the standard way of naming organisms that is still used today.

    2. Linnaeus plant classification

      Linnaeus launched his career in 1735 with a system for classifying plants based on their reproductive structures.

      After reading a book about the sexual life of flowers, he reached the conclusion that stamens and pistils must be the most important characters for classifying plants. He studied the plants and formed a system which divided them into 24 classes based on their sexual structures. The 24th consisted of plants without flowers, the cryptogams.

      The sexual system was first presented in Linnaeus' famous production Systema Naturae in 1735. Georg Dionysius Ehret's illustration shown here depicts the characters Linnaeus used to determine 24 classes of plants. Linnaeus arranged plants according to his own sexual system, classifying them into groups based on the number and form of their male and female parts. It was his goal to group all known plants according to his classification system.

      Ehret's illustration is a powerful insight to the greatest and most prolific botanical artist of the 1700s. While his finished watercolours are without doubt magnificent, his sketches reveal the artist behind them. They show the time he took to understand a subject before depicting it on paper, as well as his notes and thoughts, scrutinising not just the adult plant but the seeds and flowers. Ehret (1708–1770) was a lover of plants first, and an artist second.

    3. John Ray

      '... no surer criterion for determining species has occurred to me than the distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed...one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.' John W Ray (1627-1705)

      John Ray, known as the 'father of British botany', contributed several important concepts to the field of plant taxonomy.

      Ray worked towards a natural classification of plants that was based on more than one data set. He felt that rather than using a single character, the classification should ideally make use of all available information for as many parts of the plant as possible. Ray set out his new classification of plants in Methodus Plantarum Nova (1682), in which he discusses some basic aspects of their biology. He was also the first to define a species in his book Historia Plantarum in 1686, shown above.

      Ray worked to popularise the study of plants, to make it a scientific discipline and to systematise previous knowledge of plants into a workable whole. If not for the innovative use of binomials by Linnaeus, John Ray might have been more widely remembered as the true 'father of plant taxonomy'.

    4. Wheat specimen from the Clifford Herbarium

      The Clifford Herbarium contains over 3,000 specimens collected by George Clifford (1685-1760), an extraordinarily wealthy Anglo-Dutch director of the Dutch India Company.

      The herbarium includes plants that were newly cultivated in Europe at the time of collection, as well as specimens from collectors around the world. Clifford had a great passion for plants, and his garden at Hartekamp was inspired by the famous botanists of his time, such as Hermann Boerhaave (1668-1739).

      On a visit to the home of botanist Johannes Burman (1706-1779), Clifford was introduced to an up-and-coming young Swedish botanist, Carl Linnaeus. Clifford was keen to employ Linnaeus at Hartekamp. So in 1735 Linnaeus started his dream job of supervising the hothouses and naming and classifying specimens according to his new system.

      During his stay Linnaeus produced an important botanical work, Hortus Cliffortianus (1737), considered a precursor of his Species Plantarum (1753).

      Linnaeus described many new species from living and dried specimens in Clifford's possession. Many of the plants in the Clifford Herbarium are the actual specimens that Linnaeus first described and assigned a scientific name to for that plant species - the type specimens.

    5. Sri Lankan plant specimens

      The Hermann Herbarium is one of the earliest and most important collections of Sri Lankan plants. It contains more than 400 species, which were picked, dried and named by the physician Paul Hermann (1646 -1695).

      Hermann spent five years in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as chief medical officer to the Dutch East Indies Company, which managed the island under Dutch rule. His collection, in five bound volumes, didn't achieve lasting importance until after Hermann's death in 1695.

      The volumes seem to have disappeared from sight until 1744, when they reappeared in the possession of the Danish Apothecary-Royal, August Günther. Günther loaned the volumes to Linnaeus, who set about identifying the plant species and placing them in his new sexual classification system. Linnaeus used them as the basis for his book on Ceylon's plants, Flora Zeylanica, published in 1747. You can see Hermann's handwriting under each plant and, beneath that, a reference number written by Linnaeus.

      In 1753 Linnaeus published his Species Plantarum, in which he used binomial names for the first time. Most of the Sri Lankan taxa in Systema Natura were from Flora Zeylanica, so the Hermann Herbarium is very rich in Linnaean type material.

    6. Cocoa plant <i>Theobroma cacao</i>

      The scientific name Theobroma cacao was given to the cocoa plant by Carl Linnaeus in 1753, in his famous book Species Plantarum. This cocoa plant was brought back to London from Jamaica in 1689 by the collector and doctor Hans Sloane. The name Theobroma cacao is from the Greek 'theobroma', meaning drink of the gods.

      Linnaeus used the text and drawings from Sloane's collections as the basis for descriptions of this and other species found in his plant catalogue. Sloane employed a local artist, the Reverend Garret Moore, to illustrate many of the specimens, but others, such as the cocoa leaf, were drawn by the talented artist Everhardus Kickius on Sloane's return to England (far left).

      Sloane saw local people boiling cocoa seeds to make a drink. When he tasted it, he found it too bitter for his palate so he added milk and sugar. After Sloane returned to England he sold the recipe. Cadbury reworked the drink and later created the chocolate bar.

      Eight of Sloane's 265 volumes of specimens came from Jamaica, each filled with carefully dried and mounted plants. The volumes are still often used by scientists, as they are powerful record of the biodiversity of the West Indies.

      In his long life, noted physician, scientist and collector Sir Hans Sloane amassed one of the greatest collections of plants, animals, antiquities, coins and many other objects of his time. Sloane's collections are the founding core of the Natural History Museum's collections and occupy a central position in its history.

    7. Black scorpion fish

      A Swedish pupil of Linnaeus, Daniel Solander came to Britain in 1760 and was employed as an assistant at the British Museum. He was then engaged by Sir Joseph Banks to sail with HMS Endeavour.

      HMS Endeavour set sail from England in 1768, captained by the English explorer and navigator Captain Cook to record the transit of Venus across the face of the Sun, from the vantage point of Tahiti. But at the last minute botanist Sir Joseph Banks and his team of scientists, artists, servants and two dogs boarded to carry out another, secret, mission: to investigate rumours of a huge land mass known as Terra Australis Incognita. They were away for three years, during which Solander and Banks collected and described an important collection of plants and animals from Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific islands.

      This picture was painted by the young and talented artist Sydney Parkinson, who was appointed by Sir Joseph Banks as a natural history artist for the voyage. Paintings such as this showed Western eyes what lay beyond their shores, before the invention of photography. It was hard work for Parkinson and sadly he never made it home, dying of dysentery and fever on the return journey, aged 26.

    8. <i>Knightia excelsa</i>, from New Zealand

      '[the] collection of plants was...grown so immensely large that it was necessary that some extraordinary care should be taken of them least they should spoil.' Sir Joseph Banks.

      Daniel Solander came to Britain in 1760, on the advice of his professor at the University of Uppsala, Carl Linnaeus. Solander was initially employed as an assistant at the British Museum before being engaged by Banks to sail with the Endeavour in 1768. Solander brought a set of unique skills to the voyage. He had first-hand knowledge of the new method of plant classification devised by Linnaeus, and together with Banks was able to accurately classify the plants they collected, even though the vast majority of species were new to them both.

      Banks and Solander discovered many new species, including exotic tree ferns. They also paid close attention to plants that might be grown for economic reasons, including New Zealand Flax, Phormium tenax, used by the indigenous population for clothing and now a common garden plant in Europe.

      Banks and Solander also worked closely with the artist Sydney Parkinson, who was on board the ship, instructing him in how they wished the plants to be drawn and which parts were to be depicted, urging him to capture the plants' forms while they were still fresh. To keep up with the two botanists, Parkinson resorted to making brief outline drawings of the plants, with specific areas partly coloured in so that they could be finished later.

      Over 3,000 plant specimens were collected on the three-year voyage, including an estimated 1,000 or more new species. Re-examination of the collections has led to the description of even more new species as recently as the 1980s.

      Returning home in 1771, the adventurers were hailed as heroes - especially Banks, with his exciting accounts of Maori warriors and exotic animals. After the voyage Solander became Banks's assistant and librarian, even declining a professorship at St Petersburg University to remain in London.

    9. <i>Hippochrenes amplus</i> a fossil gastropod

      Hippochrenes amplus is a kind of fossil conch shell (a gastropod mollusc). This is the type specimen, described and named by Daniel Solander in 1766. Daniel Solander used Linnaean binomial system to name the fossil. His original name for it was Strombus amplus but the species has since been transferred to the genus Hippochrenes.

      Solander (1733-1782) was a pupil of Carl Linnaeus. His description of this species may be the first time Linnaean nomenclature was used to name a fossil, rather than a living plant or animal. Solander return to the British Museum in 1763 and his publication on the Eocene Barton Beds of Hampshire, a layer of clays rich in mollusc fossils, was published in 1766.

      Originating from Eocene deposits in Hordel, Hampshire in 1749, the collector of this specimen is unknown. The specimen was given to the Museum as part of the fossil shell collection of Gustavus Brander (1720–1787), a Trustee of the British Museum.

    10. 'Old Man' <i>Banksia</i>

      This plant was given the scientific name Banksia serrata by Carl Linnaeus's son, in honour of the great eighteenth-century naturalist Sir Joseph Banks.

      Banks was the first European to see the plant growing in its native Australia, while aboard HMS Endeavour (1768–1771). Banks brought it and specimens of other closely related new species back to England, where the new genus Banksia was named after him. The artwork of Banksia (far right) was prepared from a drawing by Sydney Parkinson, a young and talented artist on board Endeavour who helped produce 18 volumes of plant drawings from the voyage.

      In total Banks collected more than 3,000 plants on the trip, about 900 of which were new to science. The specimens Banks collected accounted for approximately 110 new genera and 1,300 new species. Some 75 different species bear his name, as do a group of islands near Vanuatu in the Pacific and a peninsula in New Zealand. A suggestion was made to name Australia 'Banksia', but it was not adopted.

      Banks is probably best remembered for his botanical legacy. He sponsored numerous voyages, enabling young naturalists and artists to record their discoveries. As King George III's advisor at Kew, he also introduced countless plants to the UK and developed an interest in the economic value of species, for example identifying Assam as a prime spot to cultivate tea to export home.

      Banks' famous plant collection is now held at the Museum, along with insects and shells that he acquired throughout his life. These are all still valued research tools, as well as important historical artefacts.

  1. The theory of evolution

    The theory of evolution by natural selection, devised independently by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, underpins modern biology.

    1835 -1859

    Dr Tim Littlewood, evolutionary biologist

    1. Darwin's mockingbirds

      'If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks, the zoology of archipelagoes will be well worth examining; for such facts would undermine the stability of species.' Charles Darwin

      This bird, collected by Darwin in the Galápagos Islands, is the very first Floreana mockingbird (Nesomimus trifasciatus) described by science.

      Although finches are the most famous Galápagos residents to have drawn Darwin's attention, it was these mockingbirds that laid the foundation for his theory of evolution by natural selection, an idea that took him 20 years to publish.

      When he first arrived in the Galápagos in 1835, Darwin collected a number of mockingbird specimens. On one island (Chatham Island, now San Cristóbal Island), he noticed a mockingbird similar to those he had seen in Chile. On another island (Charles Island, now Floreana Island), however, he found the mockingbirds to be quite different. He later found a third species on Isabela Island.

      These finds were Darwin's first hint that species could indeed evolve over time, thus refuting the so-called 'stability of species' theory. He reasoned that a single species from the mainland could have colonised the archipelago and gradually evolved into different species on different islands.

    2. Darwin's finches

      'Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that [...] one species had been taken and modified for different ends.' Charles Darwin

      Some of the most famous birds of all time, Darwin's finches from the Galápagos Islands are the perfect model of evolution in action. The 13 species all look roughly the same - brown or black and sparrow-sized - but their beaks are considerably different, brilliantly adapted to what they eat.

      For example, those feeding on hard-to-crack seeds have big, strong beaks, while those targeting tiny insects have smaller, pointed beaks.

      Darwin collected the birds during his five-year voyage on HMS Beagle. His journey inspired him to question how the diversity of life came to be, leading many years later to his book On the Origin of Species.

      Yet at first he did not see the significance of these birds, thinking they were a mix of wrens, blackbirds, finches and warblers. It was only when John Gould, the famous English ornithologist, identified all the birds as finches that the pieces came together.

      Darwin realised that the birds were related not just to one another, but also to the finches on the South American mainland. He suggested that, rather than being created as they were, they likely descended from common ancestors that had flown to the Galápagos Islands and adapted to their new environment.

    3. Darwin's pigeons

      'Can you see any good reason why the natural selection of ... individual differences should not make a new species?' Charles Darwin

      The humble pigeon was crucial to Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection. He learnt to breed them, corresponded with pigeon fanciers from as far afield as India and Iran, and showed how different characteristics can be selected and exaggerated over generations. For example, he was able to produce pigeons with extra tail feathers by picking the right parents.

      From these experiments, Darwin concluded that, in the wild, offspring inherit characteristics that helped their parents survive, and this allows species to change over millions of years. He also worked out that all domesticated pigeons are descended from one common ancestor, the rock dove.

      Darwin gave his personal collection of pigeons to the Museum in 1867 and 1868, as part of a bigger collection of domestic birds including ducks, chickens and canaries. The pigeons came with his handwritten notes and labels, and you can even see his writing on some of the bones. The 60 skins and 60 or so skeletons were a vital inspiration for his theory of evolution by natural selection and feature extensively in his book On the Origin of Species.

    4. Wallace's flying frog

      '[T]he variability of the toes which have been already modified for purposes of swimming [...] enable an allied species to pass through the air like the flying lizard.' Alfred Russel Wallace

      Wallace discovered this frog, now known as Wallace's flying frog (Racophorus nigropalmatus), in the Borneo jungle in 1855. Fascinated by the frog's ability to glide through the air, he painted this picture and wrote on the back 'descended from a high tree as if flying'.

      Wallace was already interested in the idea of evolution, and for him the discovery of this frog was yet another hole in the idea that species were fixed and unchanging from the moment of their creation. It was clearly a frog - a group of animals not previously known for their flying ability - yet it had turned its webbed toes to another use. The frog was not a perfect swimmer, nor a perfect flier, but it had the ability to do both. Its form suggested that it had adapted, rather than been created.

    5. Wallace's 'Sarawak Law' paper

      'Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.' Alfred Russel Wallace

      This is a reprint of the first paper in which Wallace publicly discusses evolution. The title is 'On the Law which has Regulated the Introduction of New Species', but it is generally called the Sarawak Law paper since Wallace wrote it in 1855 while in the Sarawak region of Borneo.

      In the paper, he asked why species similar to each other in appearance are often located near one another, both geographically and in the fossil record: 'the most closely allied species [are] found in geographical proximity. The question forces itself upon every thinking mind - why are these things so?'

      To answer this question, Wallace proposed the Sarawak Law: 'Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species.' In other words, new species evolve from existing ones, rather than simply appearing where they are. This explains why similar species are found near one another in both space and time.

      More broadly, Wallace suggested that the distribution of animals and plants is related to gradual geological changes over time. For example, the formation of an island isolating two groups of a species from one other leads them to evolve into separate species. These ideas are part of a concept we now call biogeography.

    6. Wallace Line

      'In this archipelago there are two distinct faunas […] yet there is nothing on the map or on the face of the islands to mark their limits.' Alfred Russel Wallace

      Alongside his work in developing the theory of evolution by natural selection, Wallace (and his vast collection of specimens) contributed to the growth of a new field: evolutionary biogeography.

      Evolutionary biogeography studies the distribution of plants and animals around the world, and supplies key evidence that evolution is taking place.

      Wallace himself famously encountered this process when crossing from the island of Bali to the island of Lombok, both in modern-day Indonesia. He noted a big difference in the species found on either side of the narrow strait between the islands, and realised that he had crossed an invisible dividing line - now known as the Wallace Line.

      We know today that the Wallace Line arises because the species on either side were isolated from each other in the past, and thus have different evolutionary histories.

    7. Golden birdwing butterfly

      'On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently … so great was the excitement.' Alfred Russel Wallace

      Part of Wallace's inspiration for the theory of evolution came from the huge variation he witnessed among the insects, birds and other animals he collected on his travels. Many of the 126,000 specimens he collected in the Malay Archipelago are now in the Museum.

      This magnificent butterfly, known as Wallace's golden birdwing butterfly (Ornithoptera croesus), is one of the most famous insects Wallace discovered. He caught it on the Indonesian island of Bacan in 1859, during his eight-year expedition around the Malay Archipelago.

      Wallace's understanding of these creatures also led him to formulate the earliest modern definition of species (now known as the biological species concept) in an important paper he wrote about the swallowtail butterflies of the Malay Archipelago: 'Species are merely those strongly marked races or local forms which, when in contact, do not intermix, and [are] incapable of producing a fertile hybrid offspring.'

    8. Darwin and Wallace's joint paper on evolution

      'The life of wild animals is a struggle for existence [...] in which the weakest and least perfectly organized must always succumb.' Alfred Russel Wallace

      The theory of evolution by natural selection was jointly proposed by Darwin and Wallace in this scientific article, which was first read at a meeting of the Linnean Society of London on 1 July 1858.

      At that point, Darwin had been working privately on the theory for 20 years, but in early 1858 he received a letter from Wallace that completely changed his plans. Wallace, feverish with malaria on an island in the Malay Archipelago, had a flash of inspiration: he realised that species evolved through natural selection. He immediately wrote an essay on the subject, sending it to Darwin because he knew Darwin was interested in the subject.

      Darwin's friends suggested that, rather than lose priority, and to avoid looking as though he had stolen Wallace's idea, he should announce his work jointly with Wallace. This paper was the result. It is split into three parts: first, an extract from a manuscript by Darwin; second, an abstract of a letter from Darwin to Professor Asa Gray, dated 1857, included to reinforce that Darwin did not steal Wallace's ideas; and, finally, the essay written by Wallace.

      The essay's unexpected arrival spurred Darwin into writing his famous book On the Origin of Species, which was published 15 months later in November 1859.

    9. <i>On the Origin of Species</i>

      'From the war of nature, from famine and death, [...] the production of the higher animals directly follows.' Charles Darwin

      This is one of five pages of notes held by the Museum that were handwritten by Darwin for his book On the Origin of Species. It was produced for the chapter on instinct and is a precious legacy of one of the most influential books ever written. Its annotations and redactions are a record of his thoughts throughout the book's development. By the time the book was published in 1859, Darwin had spent 20 years refining his ideas.

      In the book, Darwin revealed his theory of evolution through natural selection. He saw that all living things shared a common ancestry, but that over time, organisms change, with those best suited to their environment more likely to survive. This process, he explained, helped produce the great diversity of the natural world.

      When first published, the book had the longer title On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life, but it was renamed On the Origin of Species in 1872, with the sixth edition.

      It was an instant bestseller, although also a direct challenge to the widely held belief that God created, and still controlled, everything.

  1. Discovering diversity: the golden age of collecting

    The marine trade routes of the eighteenth century and the empire building of the nineteenth opened up new opportunities for exploration of the natural world.


    Clare Valentine, Head of Life Science Collections

    1. Duck-billed platypus

      Few animals have confused the scientific world as much as the duck-billed platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus. When the first platypus specimen arrived from Australia in 1798 scientists were convinced it was a fake. How could an animal covered in fur also have a bird's beak? Many fakes were being produced at the time - particularly in China - by stitching together leftover animal parts. Such fakes included the eastern monkey, with the body of a monkey and the tail of a fish. Not only did the platypus look odd from the outside, but its insides were strange, too. If it was a mammal, as the fur would suggest, where were the uterus and milk glands, the other typical mammalian features? The platypus did not have them.

      It took a year of careful study before scientists felt reassured the platypus was not a joke, but a new and remarkable animal to science. The monotremes - the platypus and the echidnas - are thought to be the most primitive of living mammals and are the only ones that lay eggs instead of giving birth to live young. The platypus is also unique as it is the only mammal known to detect electric fields, which it uses to find its prey. It is also one of the few mammals able to produce venom.

      The Natural History Museum has the original duck-billed platypus specimen from 1798, now the type specimen. The Museum also holds Ferdinand Bauer's platypus watercolour, based on his sketches from the HMS Investigator voyage to Australia in the early 1800s. The picture was one of the first attempts by a European artist to record Australian flora and fauna. Relatively unknown during their lifetimes, brothers Ferdinand and Franz Bauer are recognised today as pioneers of scientific natural history illustration.

    2. Indian crested porcupine <i>Hystrix cristata</i>

      One of the main aims of the British East India Company was to work out how best to exploit India's natural products. The company established several botanical gardens to conduct scientific projects and experiments. Experts were appointed to direct the work of the gardens and the Company sponsored expeditions and surveys throughout its territories.

      One such expert was Thomas Hardwicke, who in 1778 entered the military service of the Company at the age of 22. By 1819 he had progressed to the rank of Major General and from 1820 was Commandant of Artillery until his retirement in 1823. During his time in India and the subcontinent he amassed a large and splendid collection of natural history specimens and continued to collect during his retirement in London. Hardwicke's bequest to the British Museum included his books, drawings (which amounted to more than 59 volumes), quadrupeds, skins and zoological specimens in spirits. He also left cabinets of minerals, rocks, fossils and shells. The largest part of his collection was birds from around the world which formed part of his 'Museum room' at his house in Lambeth. His collections are still studied by scientists today.

      Before his death in 1835 Hardwicke published two volumes of Illustrations of Indian Zoology, consisting of 202 colour plates from his art collection. Like most of those in the service of the Company who created collections of drawings, he was not the artist. His works were collated from a whole army of artists that he commissioned to draw for him, as well as interested persons who sent him drawings they acquired while on their travels.

    3. <i>Diceros bicornis</i>, Black Rhinoceros

      Illustrations of African wildlife by explorers like William Cornwallis Harris gripped the imagination of the Victorian public, making national heroes of the explorers.

      Harris made a name for himself by publishing The Wild Sports of Southern Africa in 1839, which told of his hunting expeditions from 1836 to 1837. Harris explains in the opening passage of his book, 'From my boyhood upwards I have been taxed by the facetious with shooting madness, and truly a most delightful mania I have ever found it'. His account of the trip is full of hunting exploits, earning him the reputation as the originator of the safari.

      Harris was a member of the Engineering Corps of the East India Company and was based in India from 1825. In 1836 he fell ill and was sent to Cape Town to recuperate. Harris was a keen naturalist and an accomplished artist. As well as hunting animals Harris spent time drawing scenes he came across including animals and people of the region. From a young age Harris frequently found his 'thoughts wander to the wilds of Africa' and he often dreamed of encountering the animals of that land, seeing the 'slender and swan-like neck of the stately giraffe' and the 'gigantic elephants'.

    4. African elephant in Hintze Hall

      Big game hunters provided museums and scientists with animals for study and display. This African elephant, photographed here in 1910, just three years after his arrival, stood proudly in the Museum’s Hintze Hall. The elephant was obtained from the taxidermists Rowland Ward Ltd and was later nicknamed George. The Museum has Asian elephants too, some brought back to London Zoo by Bertie, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) following his tour of India during 1875-76.

      Being able to study similar animals from different continents allowed scientists to compare and contrast the features and evolution of both. These comparisons continue today as Museum scientists, in collaboration with colleagues in the UK, Israel and elsewhere, investigate the evolutionary origin of the Asian elephant. They compare fossils from northern India, Pakistan and the Middle East, many of which are in the Museum collections. Fossils from Bethlehem, excavated in the 1930s, are probably more than three million years old and may represent the earliest record of the Asian elephant lineage outside of Africa, which still retained many features of earlier mammoth. More recent remains, between 500,000 and 200,000 years old, still do not show fully-evolved Asian elephant features, suggesting that the modern species arose later.

      Museum scientists and collaborators have also properly defined, for the first time since Linnaeus named the species in 1758, a type specimen (lectotype) for the Asian elephant Elephas maximus from a specimen in the collection.

    5. Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas

      Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas (1858-1929), the 'founding father of modern systematic mammalogy', was one of the most important mammal collectors of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He made a significant contribution to the development of the mammal collections at the Natural History Museum. Thomas described more than 2,000 mammal species and subspecies for the first time.

      In 1891 Thomas married Mary Kane, the daughter of Sir Andrew Clark, and heiress to a small fortune. Together he and his wife supported mammal collectors, financing collecting expeditions across the world. He also did fieldwork himself in Western Europe and South America. His wife shared his interest in natural history, and accompanied him on collecting trips.

      He was appointed to the Museum Secretary's office in 1876 and transferred to the Zoological Department in 1878. In 1896 William Henry Flower took control of the department and hired Richard Lydekker to rearrange the exhibitions. This allowed Thomas to concentrate on studying the vast mammal collection he had acquired. Although officially retired from the Museum in 1923, he continued his work without interruption.

    6. Rothschild's polar bear

      Baron Walter Rothschild, born into the prominent banking family, showed an early love of natural history and went on to become a prolific collector and respected scientist. Being a wealthy man, he was able to sponsor collectors in many parts of the world and mount his own expeditions to North Africa and elsewhere.

      His chief areas of expertise were insects, birds and large animals such as the gorilla, polar bear and giant tortoise. His father built him a museum at the corner of Tring Park, the family home, and, after just a few years struggling with the mysteries of banking, he was allowed to pursue his passion undisturbed. His museum, managed by professional curators, was open to the public from 1891, although Rothschild himself became increasingly shy and reclusive.

      Elected a Trustee of the Natural History Museum in 1899 he decided to leave his entire institution, every case, specimen and label, to the Museum. On his death in 1937 the Museum took ownership of buildings and land at Tring along with a large collection of stuffed mammals, birds, reptiles and fish, displayed in galleries that are still open to the public today. Rothschild also left research collections of an estimated 2.5 million butterflies and moths, 2,000 bird skins and a magnificent library of manuscripts and printed books.

    7. Challenger voyage

      Scientists on board HMS Challenger discovered a huge diversity of life in the deep sea, disproving the theory that nothing lived below 550 metres. These jars and slides are from the voyage, the first major expedition to investigate every physical and biological aspect of the oceans.

      HMS Challenger left British shores in 1872 for a three-and-a-half-year voyage around the world. Experts on board brought back thousands of jars, bottles, tins and tubes of samples from the ocean floor. Many of the dried and cleaned sediments looked like sand, but were actually made up of billions of microfossils, tiny shells of single-celled organisms.

      At the time little was known about the deep ocean. Some scientists even argued life could not exist deeper than 550 metres. So when telegraphic cables, trailed along the ocean floor, were raised for repair and found covered in tiny crustaceans, it sparked a quest to find out more.

      Challenger criss-crossed the oceans - from South America to the Cape of Good Hope, from Antarctica to Australia, onto the Fiji Islands and Japan, then around the southern tip of South America and back up to Britain. The team of scientists on board recorded temperatures, currents and depths of more than eight kilometres. Fifty volumes of research were produced and they are a unique legacy still in use today.

    8. Giant squid <i>Architeuthis dux</i>

      The giant squid is a rare and mysterious creature, once thought only to exist in stories of sea monsters called krakens.

      This 8.62-metre giant-squid Architeuthis dux was caught off the coast of the Falkland Islands in 2004 and offered to the Museum. So little is known about the giant squid it was too good an opportunity for the Museum to miss. The nearly complete specimen, caught at a depth of 220 metres proved a challenge to preserve and store.

      The squid was caught alive and immediately frozen allowing DNA samples to be taken before decay set in. In 2013, these samples helped prove that there is just one species of giant squid, Architeuthis dux.

      Most of what we know about the giant squid comes from the remains of dead squid recovered from the stomachs of their predators, sperm whales. The giant squid can probably grow up to 14 metres long with eyes the size of footballs, teeth-filled suckers and a strong beak. Scientists have tried to estimate how long giant squid live and how quickly they grow by examining structures such as the gladius (the pen), the eye lens and the statolith (a sensory organ). But exactly how they grow and develop, how they find a mate, and if they are solitary or shoaling animals are still mysteries.

      Once defrosted the squid was placed in a specially constructed case and put on display in the Museum's Darwin Centre.

    9. Emperor penguin

      Intrepid expeditions to Antarctica for scientific and geographical research revealed extraordinary species such as the emperor penguins.

      Penguins are so familiar to us now it's hard to imagine people seeing them for the first time. This is one of the first emperor penguins ever collected, from sometime between 1839 and 1843. The specimen was collected in Antarctic waters by a 22-year-old naturalist, Joseph Dalton Hooker. Hooker was part of a team travelling on the British naval ships Erebus and Terror, in search of the South Magnetic Pole. When he returned to the UK, everything he collected was examined and named by other naturalists and experts, and the large bird was officially called Aptenodytes forsteri.

      Scientists on the fateful British Terra Nova Antarctic Expedition (1910–1913) collected penguin eggs and their embryos. The team's zoologist Edward Wilson was on his second journey to the South Pole, led by Scott. He came back to collect penguin eggs, desperate to study the embryos to test a theory that birds were evolved from reptiles. Accompanied by his close friends and colleagues Henry Robertson Bowers and Apsley Cherry-Gerrard, he left the main camp in search of the colony. They faced torturous conditions of freezing winds and huge ice ridges, their sledges pulling heavy on their backs. But 19 days later they collected five precious eggs, two of which broke. Back at camp, Wilson and Bowers were selected to join Scott on his final push to the pole. They never returned. It was left to Cherry-Gerrard, heavy with grief after losing his team mates, to deliver the embryos and eggshells to the Museum in person.

    10. Coelacanth rediscovered in 1938

      The coelacanth is probably the most famous fish of the twentieth century. It was widely believed to have died out with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago and was only known from fossils. It's odd-shaped tail, thick scales and bony head plates were all signs of a very ancient creature. But in 1938 one swam into a fisherman's net off the coast of South Africa.

      Since then, a living colony of more than 300 of these metre-long fish has been found in deep water near the Comoros Islands, northwest of Madagascar.Two individuals from another species were found thousands of kilometres away in Indonesia.

      This specimen was caught in the 1960s and would have been deep blue in colour when alive. Its large-lobed fins have earned it the name 'old four legs', which in fact has scientific basis - some scientists believe the coelacanth is distantly related to four-legged land vertebrates. Reports that it is the missing link between these land animals and fish are far-fetched, but it's likely the coelacanth is descended from the same ancestor. Both species are now listed as critically endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

  1. Still discovering

    Today, hundreds of scientists use the Museum's collections to investigate globally significant questions, from 'What are the origins of life?' to 'How can we secure a sustainable future?'.


    Dr Vince Smith, cybertaxonomist

    1. Ivuna meteorite

      'We have shown that asteroids were responsible for the majority of water and nitrogen delivered to the Moon, between 4.5 and 4.3 billion years ago. It is an exciting finding, because the Earth probably got its water in exactly the same way. We now know much more about the types of objects impacting on both the Moon and the Earth in the time just after they formed.' Prof Sara Russell, Head of Mineral and Planetary Sciences

      The Ivuna meteorite fell to Earth in Tanzania in 1938. Beneath its modest grey exterior, water lies trapped inside its minerals, hiding clues about the beginnings of the solar system and the source of water on the Moon and Earth.

      The Museum houses a world-class collection of rare meteorites like Ivuna and samples from the Apollo missions. Prof Russell and her fellow researchers looked at chemical data from lunar samples and data from meteorites and comets. They found the chemical compounds of the lunar samples matched the composition of meteorites like Ivuna but not the comets.

      Previous studies have shown that water on the Moon has a similar chemical makeup to Earth's water. This suggests that the Moon's water was either inherited from the Earth before the two bodies split or delivered to the Earth-Moon system shortly after they formed. When the planets began forming, they experienced a near-constant barrage of meteorite impacts. This research suggests that meteorites like Ivuna brought water to the Moon as well as the Earth billions of years ago.

    2. Neanderthals and us

      'Genetic research shows that most people outside of Africa have about 2% Neanderthal DNA. We think that the modern humans who spread into Asia around 60,000 years ago interbred with the Neanderthals. Since these migrants were the ancestors of all people outside of Africa, they took their small bits of Neanderthal DNA with them as they spread out across the rest of the world.' Prof Chris Stringer, human origins expert

      Expert Prof Chris Stringer discusses what this Neanderthal inheritance may have meant for the early modern humans who migrated out of Africa, and what it means for us today.

      Interbreeding may have helped early modern humans adapt quickly to new environments, as they acquired genes from Neanderthals who had lived there for many thousands of years.

      Some Neanderthal DNA is found in parts of the human genome that are associated with skin and hair, maybe giving our ancestors thicker hair and skin that helped them cope better with the colder climate, or a greater resistance to diseases. Other DNA inherited from Neanderthals seems to help boost immunity, perhaps providing a quick fix against local infections.

      But it's not all good news. Neanderthal DNA in modern humans seems to be associated with an increased risk of developing diseases such as thrombosis, lupus and Crohn's. Some of the negative effects in modern humans may have been triggered by our immune systems or changes to our lifestyles over many thousands of years.

    3. The last of the mammoths

      'The mammoths are sounding a warning to us today, that big animals like the elephants, far from the being resistant to extinction, are often the most vulnerable' Prof Adrian Lister, palaeobiologist

      Climate change or hunting by humans - what caused the extinction of these Ice Age elephants? Mammoth expert Prof Lister talks us through his research findings and the stark warning they sound for the future of mammoths' living relatives, African and Asian elephants. Find out how Prof Lister uses Museum collections for his research into the last major extinction of large mammals.

      Woolly mammoths roamed parts of Earth's northern hemisphere for at least half a million years. They were still in their heyday 20,000 years ago but within the next 10,000 years they were reduced to isolated populations off the coasts of Siberia and Alaska. By 4,000 years ago they were gone.

    4. Uncovering new species of <i>Lavigeria</i>

      'I get a real thrill from finding things that no one has seen before, but there's also a longer term satisfaction from correcting past mistakes and understanding the real diversity hidden in the collection.' Dr Jon Todd, systematist

      These 51 shells were collected in Lake Tanganyika, the deepest and oldest water body in Africa. Scientists studying specimens in 1953 noted that the empty shells had a huge range of shapes and sizes, but they had little knowledge of the soft-parts of the animals inside, how they reproduced or where and how they lived. Based on the empty shells alone, they classified these animals as one extremely variable species.

      We now know that the shells actually represent 51 different species belonging to the genus Lavigeria.

      This hidden diversity was revealed by a combination of scuba diving and genetic analysis. Museum scientists Ellinor Michel and Jon Todd collected live snails from the lake, recording the different sites and habitats in which they lived. DNA sequencing confirmed their suspicion that those snails with significantly different morphologies and ecologies are indeed separate species.

      Because Lake Tanganyika is a closed ecosystem unconnected to the ocean, it is ideal for studying how new species emerge and go extinct in isolation. Understanding species diversity in the lake is also key for developing conservation programmes that target specific groups at risk from human degradation of the environment.

      In terms of revealing undiscovered species, reinterpreting historic collections is almost as fruitful as exploring new habitats. Research on heritage collections goes hand-in-hand with exploring new frontiers to reveal the real biodiversity in the world around us.

    5. Skull of <i>Toxodon platensis</i>

      'Although the bones of these animals had been studied for over 180 years, no clear picture of their origins had been reached.' Prof Ian Barnes, molecular evolutionary biologist

      Toxodon platensis was the last survivor of a huge group of South American ungulates, or hooved animals. Toxodon were a puzzling group of mammals that lived from 50 million to just ten thousand years ago. Charles Darwin collected the first known specimen of Toxodon on the Beagle voyage, and it was studied by the Museum's founder, Richard Owen, who described its odd combination of rodent-, hippo- and whale-like features. Darwin called them the ‘strangest animals ever discovered’, and until recently the origins of Toxodon and the other South American ungulates have remained a mystery.

      Museum scientists were part of an international team who analysed 48 fossils of Toxodon platensis and Macrauchenia patachonica, another species whose remains Darwin collected 180 years ago when he visited Uruguay and Argentina on the Beagle voyage. The team began by looking for ancient DNA but this had not survived in the fossils. They instead studied collagen, a structural protein found in all animal bones that can survive for millions of years. Chemical structures inside the proteins can be compared between different species, revealing clues about how closely the species are related.

      Although Toxodon most closely resembles a large hippo and the Macrauchenia a fat, long-legged camel with a trunk, the scientists determined that the closest living relatives of South America’s ungulates were the perissodactyls - the group that includes horses, rhinos and tapirs. This makes them part of Laurasiatheria, one of the major groups of mammals that have placentas.

    6. Marine life in Antarctica

      Marine biologist Dr Adrian Glover, is examining biodiversity deep in the Southern Ocean in Antarctica to understand how marine ecosystems may deal with future climate change.

      Dr Glover shows us some of the high-tech equipment that is revolutionising the study of deep-sea biology, making it easier to collect specimens and even discover species new to science.

      High-latitude ecosystems, such as the Antarctic, experience extreme variations in productivity and food supply between seasons and years. By examining how marine ecosystems respond to these changes, scientists can test how they may respond to global change.

      Dr Glover and his team use DNA and data on the shape and structure of creatures from samples collected by the British Antarctic Survey BIOPEARL project from the West Antarctic.

    7. Effect of land use on biodiversity

      'We know that the landscape is going to change a lot in the future as the population grows, but we haven't really known how biodiversity will change in response. With PREDICTS we're building global models that help us to predict how land-use change will affect local biodiversity - and us - in the future.' Prof Andy Purvis, PREDICTS lead scientist and biodiversity researcher

      Museum scientists have shown for the first time the extent to which human land use has affected the diversity of wildlife in ecosystems around the world. The research team assessed changes in biodiversity caused by the conversion of land for agriculture and urbanisation from 1500 until the present day.

      'What the figures show is that if you were to go out and sample a site, anywhere in the world, on average you'd find 13.6% fewer species than you would have done in 1500. And that appears to be because of major land-use changes by humans,' says lead scientist Prof Purvis.

      That figure is a global average, so local biodiversity in some areas is still relatively intact, but others - including Western Europe - have experienced losses in excess of 20% to 30% since the industrial revolution.

      This research is part of a major collaborative project called known as PREDICTS: Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity In Changing Terrestrial Systems. The team brought together a huge database of evidence to complete the largest survey ever on the impact of humanity on local biodiversity. The database contains records from 90 countries and 450 scientific papers, representing more than 40,000 species - comprising 1.5% of species that have been formally described by science. It is a vast assemblage of unprecedented geographic and taxonomic coverage.

      The team also forecast the future impact of pressures caused by human activities. Under a business-as-usual scenario, the vast majority of countries will see a decrease in their species richness over the next hundred years. However, if humanity protects forested areas and supports carbon markets, almost all countries could actually gain back biodiversity by the end of the century. This work is vital at a time when a growing human population is putting increased pressure on available land.

    8. Tackling schistosomiasis

      'It was a bit of a detective story to work out why schistosomiasis occurs in the northern part of the island and not in the south.' Dr Anouk Gouvras, parasitologist

      Dr Bonnie Webster and Dr Anouk Gouvras explain how their taxonomic expertise and the Museum's collections are helping to eliminate one of the most prevalent diseases in Africa: schistosomiasis. Follow their detective work to discover why this parasitic disease only develops in the northern part of Zanzibar and not in the south. The scientists reveal the culprit and treat the affected areas in a targeted way.

      Schistosomiasis affects 250 million people worldwide. The illness causes a range of devastating symptoms, from painful urination and stunted growth in childhood, to irreversible damage of vital organs. The disease is caused by parasitic worms, which can live in people and aquatic snails.

      The scientists are studying the Museum's collection of parasitic worms - schistosomes - and their snail hosts to understand the biology and systematics of these organisms. Their in-depth knowledge allows them to diagnose the schistosome species causing the disease and the snail species harbouring the parasite in fresh water lakes.

    9. Digitised silver-studded blue butterflies

      'This work would have been impossible without access to the digital collections of British species, allowing us to examine large amounts of data. Changes in butterfly size and habit will help us to understand the wider effects of global climate change on British organisms and ecosystems.' Steve Brooks, entomologist

      Climate change is having a dramatic effect on the lives of British butterflies. They are emerging earlier, changing in size and living in new habitats. For example, in warmer summers the adult silver-spotted skipper butterfly emerges earlier from the chrysalis with a larger wingspan and is able to travel further north.

      Museum researchers Steve Brooks and Dr Angela Self are using the Museum's digitised collections of native butterfly species to track changes in butterfly behaviour over the last 140 years, a period that has seen unprecedented temperature changes in Britain.

      The complex life cycles of butterflies rely on delicate balances within the ecosystem, including temperature and availability of food. Tracking butterfly habits can reveal important lessons about the state of the environment.

      The Museum's collections contain data on British butterflies stretching back beyond the nineteenth century - a valuable tool for researchers hoping to uncover long-term trends in our changing ecosystems.

      This data is now online for the first time thanks to the Museum's digitisation project, giving Steve Brooks access to 180,000 butterfly specimens from his desktop.
      According to Met Office data, average UK temperatures increased by 0.6°C between 1870 and 1970, and since then have increased even more rapidly, going up by 1.5°C in the last 40 years. This change is in part due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other gases in the atmosphere, which has created a greenhouse effect.

    10. Digitising the collections

      'Digitisation of data will help to address some of the world's greatest challenges - it also helps governments and companies quickly make informed decisions on how to minimise our impact on the natural world.' Prof Ian Owens, Director of Science

      We are embarking on an epic journey to digitise one of the world's most important natural history collections: 80 million specimens spanning over four billion years of history. The Museum plans to digitise 20 million specimens over the next five years.

      The data will help to address some of the world's greatest challenges. How can we make crops resilient to environmental change? How do we combat diseases? How is climate change affecting pollinators? How do we sustainably extract minerals for new green technologies?

      We are starting with collections that will help our scientists ask big questions about environmental change, food supplies for future generations, ecological responses to short-term climate variations and mass extinctions.

      Scientists are perfecting the high-speed imaging of herbarium sheets from flowering plant collections belonging to the Museum and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. They will analyse the pictures and specimen labels of wild relatives of crop plants, such as the tomato, potato and aubergine, to track the evolution of tolerance to environmental extremes and response to short-term climate change.

      The Museum is digitising our country's amazing collection of dinosaurs, flying reptiles, prehistoric fish, sharks and mammalian ancestors from the Mesozoic era. The data will help scientists answer crucial questions about mass extinctions and how species were distributed across our nation millions of years ago.