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Darwin's forgotten fungus found at Cambridge University Herbarium


By Alex Spencer


A priceless specimen collected by Charles Darwin on the HMS Beagle voyage has been discovered in the back of a cupboard.

Dr Lauren M. Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Lauren M. Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell

The find was made by the curator of Cambridge University Herbarium Lauren Gardiner, who will discuss it and other highlights of the collection during the Cambridge Science Festival, which is supported by the Cambridge Independent.

She spotted the fungus in a dried out pickling jar, which had likely remained untouched since it first came into the university’s possession more than 150 years ago.

Dr Gardiner said: “I found this specimen last year, at the back of a cupboard. It was part of the Botanical Museum we used to have in Cambridge and it used to be preserved in alcohol but had completely dried out. The seal was broken, all the alcohol had gone and it looked revolting.

“But I took it out and looked at it and realised immediately it was a Darwin specimen.”

What’s more, Dr Gardiner found out that the fungus was part of the original ‘type’ material, which means it is the original physical example of an organism, known to have been used when the species was first described

and named.

Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium (CGE), with the Darwin fungus. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium (CGE), with the Darwin fungus. Picture: Keith Heppell

Darwin’s fungus – formally named Cyttaria darwinii – is an orange golf ball-like fungus that he collected in Tierra del Fuego during his voyage on HMS Beagle.

Previously, it was thought that Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew had the only type material for this specimen. But Dr Gardiner has the original publication by Darwin’s friend, the mycologist Miles Berkeley, which describes the Cyttaria fungus found on the HMS Beagle voyage and backs up Cambridge’s claim by mentioning the specimen at Cambridge.

“It is a very exciting discovery but all natural history collections have all sorts of things in cupboards – even if you have a huge complement of staff, there are so many things in the collection you do not have the capacity to curate and there are plenty of exciting discoveries to be made here.

“A lot of our tropical material and our 19th century material was in storage for most of the last 150 years and there is so much material to look at. We quite likely have more Darwin samples in this collection that we haven’t identified yet.”

Dr Gardiner is the only full-time member of staff looking after the Herbarium , which has 1.1 million plant specimens in the collection. She hopes eventually to raise funds for more staff to document and research undiscovered gems held by the Herbarium.

One important resource that is yet to be fully researched is the collection that belonged to eminent botanist, John Lindley.

Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell

“The Lindley collection is really significant,” she says. “It is much of the historic herbarium of the what is now the Royal Horticultural Society. It was actually in John Lindley’s personal collection and Cambridge University purchased it from his family after he died in 1865. It is laden with thousands of these important ‘type’ specimens.”

Dr Gardiner’s talk at the Science Festival, Discovery and the Dead Plants Society, is on Thursday, March 14 at the Sainsbury Laboratory. In it, she will reveal some of the Herbarium’s secrets and the dangerous exploits of the adventurers who brought back these specimens. Visit sciencefestival.cam.ac.uk to book.

Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Lauren M Gardiner, curator of the Cambridge University Herbarium. Picture: Keith Heppell


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