Fossil fish collection

The Natural History Museum’s large collection of fossil fishes contains approximately 80,000 specimens, of which 5,000 are type or figured specimens. A considerable number of researchers visit every year.

Origins of the collection

The fossil fish collection was founded on 2 substantial collections purchased in the late 1880s from:

  • William Willoughby Cole, the 3rd Earl of Enniskillen (1807-1886)
  • Sir Philip de Malpas Grey Egerton (1806-1881)

Read more about the origins of the collection in an article by Peter Forey on p11-13 of Set in Stone Vol.2 No.3 PDF (818.0 KB)

Developing the collection

Fieldwork by Museum staff and donations continue to increase the size and scope of the fossil fish collection. In 2007, a large donation by David Kemp added considerably to the UK Eocene taxa represented.


Geological range:

Ordovician to Pleistocene

Recent (non-fossil) fishes are held in the Museum’s zoological collections.

Geographical range:

The collection includes specimens from every modern continent:

  • The majority come from Europe.
  • UK fossil fishes are well-represented, across all taxonomic groups.
  • The Museum currently houses fossil fishes collected in the Antarctic which belong to the British Antarctic Survey (BAS).
Collection location:

Earth sciences department at the Natural History Museum, London.

  • Armoured fossil fish, Bothriolepis canadensis
    Major and historic collections

    Learn about important collections within the fossil fish collection and what they contain. Specimens include the largest actinopterygian known and the first fossils prepared by Harry Toombs using his pioneering acid-preparation technique.

Collections management and curation


The fossil fish collection is arranged by taxon. 

According to a recent survey of the collection of gnathostomes (jawed fishes), at least 45% are actinopterygians (ray-finned fishes).


The collection occupies approximately 30 rows of cabinets.


Drawer labels list:

  • taxon name
  • specimen age
  • localities
Curatorial projects:

Specimens are currently being recorded in the Museum’s electronic collections management system. Specific projects focus on:

  • type and figured specimens
  • the Mantell Collection - mostly fish specimens from the English chalk

Entries can be accessed using the online palaeontology specimen database.

Other curatorial projects involve:

  • photographing type and figured specimens
  • reboxing fossil fish specimens to improve their condition and appearance within the collection
  • general audits of specimens in the collection

Using palaeontology collections