Happy Darwin Day

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by Ursula
Publish date
11 February 2012
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Ursula Smith works in the natural sciences collections at Museum Victoria. Though a palaeontologist by training she finds all the collections fascinating and swings between excitement at all the cool stuff in them and despair at the lack of time to look at it all.

February 12th is Charles Darwin's birthday, now celebrated at institutions around the world as Darwin Day. Darwin's work is obviously relevant to a lot of the research that goes on at Museum Victoria today, but we also have a direct link with him through some specimens housed in the Palaeontology Department.

Charles Darwin in 1854 Charles Darwin in 1854
Source: Out of copyright, via Wikipedia.
 

Darwin's best-known work is The Origin of Species, and if you had to name the animals he was particularly interested in, you'd probably think finches, or perhaps tortoises. But these are just the tip of the iceberg; before, and after publishing The Origin, Darwin also published prolifically across a breadth of natural history subjects, including geology, zoology, ornithology, entomology and botany. All of this work was vital, both in developing his theory of evolution by natural selection, and in gaining him a wide and interested audience.

One of the lynchpins of Darwin's theory was homology, the sharing of characters due to common descent (meaning that if two species share a feature we assume, until we can show otherwise, that they both inherited it from their common ancestor). Much of Darwin's thinking about homology was developed through his detailed study of the humble barnacle. He published the first full treatment of barnacles in the early 1850s with four monographs on modern and fossil barnacles.

Over 100 years later in the 1960s, the then Curator of Palaeontology at Museum Victoria, Thomas Darragh, noticed that some of the specimen labels in the palaeontology collection had handwritten notes saying "Original figured by Darwin".

Specimen label written by Kranz. Specimen label written by Kranz.
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Going back to Darwin's original descriptions and illustrations, Dr. Darragh confirmed that these specimens matched Darwin's material. For instance, looking at this photo of Scalpellum simplex and the original illustration, it's clear that the illustration is of this specimen – they share the same broken tip even though the figure shows the specimen free of the rock. Similarly, the other specimens are close matches to those in Darwin's monographs.

  Barnacle Scalpellum simplex Darwin 1854, illustration and fossil Left: Extract of plate from Darwin's original monograph. | Right:Fossil barnacle Scalpellum simplex Darwin 1854. Scale bar = 1cm. (NMV P133334).
Image: Charles Darwin | Thomas Watson
Source: Out of copyright | Museum Victoria
 

A little more investigation showed that all of the specimens Dr. Darragh had found had been declared lost by Thomas Henry Withers in the 1930s when he compiled a catalogue of the barnacle material at the Natural History Museum in London (then the Natural History section of the British Museum). So the specimens that had been thought lost for over 30 years were now found, but how had they come to be in Melbourne instead of London?

In 1854 when his work on barnacles was complete, Darwin donated all the material that he had collected himself to the British Museum, where, 80 years later, Withers made his catalogue. However, Darwin also borrowed from other collectors. One of these was John Morris, a mollusc specialist possibly best known for The Catalogue of British Fossils and who went on to become professor of Geology at University College London. When he donated his own collection, Darwin returned Morris' material to him. Morris later sold his collection to the German fossil dealer, August Krantz who, for some reason, discarded all of the original labels and re-wrote them.

In 1863, Frederick McCoy, the first director of Museum Victoria (then known as the National Museum of History and Geology) bought a collection of fossils from Krantz for the museum.

This was just one of many purchases of fossils and minerals that McCoy made from Krantz, but this one happened to include at least part of Morris' collection, including the barnacles that Darwin had worked on. Since nobody was actively working on barnacles, it took 100 years for anyone to realise the importance of these specimens, but since we did the specimens have been housed safely in the museum's type collection accessible for researchers around the world.

Happy Darwin Day!

Links:

Darwin Online Project 

Darwin's barnacle studies (Darwin Online Project)

Invertebrate Palaeontology Collections

Infosheet: How do barnacles cement themselves to rocks?

Comments (3)

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Erich 16 February, 2012 09:59
Thanks very much Ursula-another informative and thoughtful account, which nicely conveys Darwin's profound contributions as well as the depth and breadth of Museum Victoria's collections.
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Melanie Jordan 14 February, 2012 12:40
Thank you for this fascinating tribute the Darwin Ursula. I always look forward to your blog posts and learn so much.
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Kate P 14 February, 2012 09:42
What a great story - quite a lot of detective work must have gone in to making the connection back to Darwin.
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