Digitising Darwin’s Fossil Mammals


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See Darwin's fossils in 3D

Rotate, zoom in and explore the features of this Toxodon skull and other fossils from Darwin's collection.

We have produced new 3D models by scanning Darwin’s fossil mammals.

These are fragile specimens that have both scientific and historic importance.

We hope that by sharing this digital resource more people can access and use these specimens.

Project summary

  • Focus: Digitisation and conservation of Darwin's fossil mammals. This will include trialing new workflows and outreach methods.
  • Funding:  Hartnett Conservation Trust / Leche Trust
  • Start date: November 2017

Darwin's fossil mammals

We are in the pilot stage of an exciting project to digitise the historic fossil mammals collected by Charles Darwin on the Voyage of the Beagle.

Find out more in Adrian Lister's new book.

25 years before he published his theory of evolution through natural selection, a young Charles Darwin was on the voyage of a lifetime. Darwin was confronted with evidence of changes in the distribution and composition of species, of extinction, and of geological and environmental change on a grand scale. His experiences aboard the H.M.S. Beagle between 1831 and 1836 laid the foundation for his future scientific work, culminating in his publication of his theory of evolution in 1859. 

Among the thousands of plant, animal, rock and fossil specimens Darwin collected while aboard the Beagle, he collected 13 species of fossil mammal. These specimens held a special place in Darwin’s heart and mind, demonstrated by his enthusiasm in the field and their place in his thoughts many years later.

'I have just got scent of some fossil bones of a Mammoth, what they may be, I do not know, but if gold or galloping will get them, they shall be mine.'

Of the fossil mammal specimens collected by Darwin, approximately 100 bones and fragments remain, representing seven species collected from Argentina and Uruguay, including four different species of giant ground sloth, two species of hoofed mammal and the remains of an extinct type of horse. All are between 10,000 and 500,000 years old.

Our aim is to fully document, research, conserve and digitise these scientifically and historically significant specimens and to make them publically available.


Thanks to the Hartnett Conservation Trust and the Leche Trust the Museum has been able to undertake a pilot study to investigate the potential that digitisation holds for this collection. It focuses on 13 fossil mammal specimens collected by Darwin, all of which have been attributed to Toxodon at one time or another.

A photograph of the Toxodon incisor tooth

The pilot aims to:

  • Produce 3D digital models of a selection of Darwin's fossil specimens and make them freely available.
  • Share our knowledge about the specimens.
  • Test the limitations of the technology  to inform future digitisation.
  • Explore platforms for distributing 3D models.
  • Gather feedback on the benefits of digitising this collection and how it can inform learning and research.
Artist impression of a Toxodon

Toxodon reconstruction by Mauricio Anton 

Toxodon is a type of extinct mammal from South America. The word 'Toxodon' means 'bow-tooth' from the curved form of the teeth and 'platensis' refers to the district (La Plata) near where its remains were first discovered.

Imaging the specimens

The Toxodon specimens range in size from one centimetre to one metre and include specimens which are considered challenging to faithfully reproduce using 3D laser scans (due to uneven surfaces with lots of holes). This made them ideal candidates to test the technology. The sample includes probably the most iconic Darwin specimen, the type skull of Toxodon platensis, but also fragments with uncertain histories. 

Photograph of  a Toxodon Specimen being scanned with the laser scanner

 Toxodon specimen being scanned with the laser scanner

An arm-mounted laser scanner captured the profile of the surface, including any cracks, peaks, troughs and texture. The initial capture of the data was completed in three days. The next step involved processing the data.

The small fragments took about a week to process and convert into finished 3D models. The large skull has taken longer to process. A skull is a complex shape with attachments for muscles, holes for blood vessels and arteries, for the spinal cord to enter and for breathing. Expose the skull in a river bed for some time and the weathering will add more cracks and holes and expose the spongy inside of bone.

This complex surface is difficult to capture and reproduce. In the end though, this intricate model will provide just as much detail as its real counterpart.

Digital teams are interested in experimenting with virtual reconstruction techniques to understand how 3D imaging can bring these specimens to new audiences and inspire curiosity about the specimens that were crucial to Darwin’s theories.

If you have ideas about how you would like to use these models, please get in touch via @NHM_Digitse@NHMFossilMammal and @NHM_IAC on Twitter. 

Project team

Project team

With assistance from 

  • Heidi Potter
  • Amy Scott-Murray
  • Brett Clark

Digital collections blog

Catch up with the latest digitisation techniques and technology.

Related information

The data from this project is freely and openly available to researchers around the world via the Museum's data portal.