Voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836)

Hudsonian godwit, Limosa haemastica

Hudsonian godwit, Limosa haemastica, from Captain FitzRoy’s collection.

Some of our most famous specimens were collected by Charles Darwin and Captain Robert FitzRoy during the round-the-world voyage of HMS Beagle between 1831 and 1836.

Charles Darwin boarded the HMS Beagle as a gentleman companion for Captain Robert FitzRoy, to share in his scientific interests. Darwin certainly achieved this, keeping detailed notebooks of geology and zoology as well as collecting specimens. for its long surveying mission.

Darwin collected nearly 500 bird skins, whole birds preserved in spirit, various bird parts and a small number of nests and eggs. 

Darwin gave the majority of his collection to the museum of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), where the specimens were examined by the renowned ornithologist John Gould. Thirty-nine new species and subspecies of bird were subsequently described.

Evolutionary ideas

Galapagos finches, commonly known as Darwin’s finches are the most well known species Darwin discovered and are often credited as the inspiration for his ideas on evolution.

In fact it was Gould who recognised that the finches were closely related. Darwin originally recorded them as being from a range of different bird families. 

In fact the differences Darwin noted between varieties of mockingbirds on separate Galapagos islands are more likely to have inspired . 

Moving collections

In 1855, the ZSL museum was broken up and the collections dispersed. Although the British Museum had first pick of the bird specimens, some of Darwin’s specimens were scattered across other public and private collections.

Over time, many of these specimens reached the Natural History Museum, making it the largest single collection of Darwin’s Beagle voyage birds with nearly 200 specimens. Nevertheless, nearly half the original collection remains unaccounted for; the remainder of known specimens are spread across seven other collections. Detailed documentation of Darwin’s bird collection is given by F.D.Steinheimer, Journal of Ornithology, 145: 300-320, 2004.

Fitzroy’s collection

Captain FitzRoy was also tasked with gathering specimens as a representative of the Royal Navy. His bird skins were given to the British Museum, of which nearly 200 specimens still survive, representing almost the entire original collection.  

The Bird Group is currently working to trace the history of FitzRoy’s birds, in particular to link them back to surviving archives in order to restore their full data. 

We are examining the similarities and differences between Darwin’s and FitzRoy’s collections to determine the role that FitzRoy’s collection may have played in helping Darwin develop his revolutionary ideas.

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Accessing the collections

Scientists and collections management specialists can visit the collections and borrow specimens for research.

Collections management

Our duty is to provide a safe and secure environment for all of our collections.