Researchers at Cambridge University have discovered Charles Darwin’s collection of seaweed and fungi – still wrapped in the newspaper he covered them in 180 years ago.
Scientist relocating the University’s Herbarium from the Department of Plant Sciences to the new Sainsbury Laboratory turned up hundreds of never seen before unique specimens.
Amazingly, they found 180-year-old samples collected by naturalist Darwin on his legendary Beagle Voyage in South America during 1832 and 1833.
The artefacts – part of Darwin’s history-changing work on evolution – were still wrapped in the private adds section of a paper Darwin had, dated 1828.
Incredibly, the samples had been mislaid for more than 60 years, after being stashed in a box labled ‘to be sorted’.
And chief technician at the University’s Herbarium Christine Bartram believes they have not been taken out of their newspaper packaging since Darwin’s mentor Professor John Henslow examined them in the 1840s.
The samples will now be examined and photographed and added to an online catalogue so they can be viewed by experts around the world.
Chief technician Christine Bartram, who is in charge of sorting through the samples, said: “I was going through a box labelled in 1950 ‘to be sorted’.
“Inside it, wrapped in a newspaper from 1828, I found fungi and seaweed collected by Charles Darwin on the Beagle Voyage in South America during 1832 and 1833.
“I do not believe the paper parcels were opened again after Prof Henslow examined them in the 1840s.
“There are probably thousands of plants we have no idea are in the collection.”
Darwin’s specimens are just some of the hundreds rediscovered in the process of sorting and relocating the priceless collection to its new home.
The University Herbarium was moved from the Department of Plant Sciences to the new Sainsbury Laboratory as the collection needed more space.
The Sainsbury Laboratory, which opened in 2011, was funded by an £82 million donation from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation.
The specimens and their accompanying field notes hold vital information that can shed new light on plant evolution.
The scientists also hope – through analysis of their DNA – to rediscover lost plant genes that may code for valuable attributes.