Fossil mammal collections

The fossil mammal collections at the Natural History Museum contain an estimated 250,000 specimens from around the world, and are rich in type and figured material.

The collections include historical research collections, such as mammalian material collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle.

Britain’s colonial past has underpinned the growth of our holdings. In addition to European material, we have collections from Australia, North America, South America, Africa and Asia.

We also care for:

  • fast-growing collections of British material
  • a very diverse collection of global Mesozoic mammals

Details

Geological range:

The collections include a significant range of Mesozoic mammals and good collections from the Neogene and Quaternary. 

We have a growing collection of Tertiary casts.

Geographical range:

All continents are represented.

Historical biases

Historically, the collections are biased towards large, exhibitable material. We have worked very hard to redress this imbalance, particularly in the British collections. However, we are unlikely to be able to make a significant impact for most other areas as many parts of the world are now relatively difficult to collect from.

  • Arsinotherium skull from Egypt
    International collections of fossil mammals

    Explore the highlights of our fossil mammal collections from around the world. They incorporate a range of important material, from early pioneering collections rich in type specimens described by Richard Owen, to major new resources such as Professor RJG Savage's research collections from the Micocene of Libya.

  • Dorudon fossil
    British collection of fossil mammals

    Our British holdings include particularly important Pleistocene material from the Republic of Ireland, East Anglia, the Thames Valley and the caves of Devon. Learn more about the most rapidly expanding part of our fossil mammal collection.

  • Missourium theristrocaulodon fossil jaw.
    Research visits to the fossil mammal collections

    Find out about visiting the fossil mammal collections for research purposes.

Collections management and curation

Storage:

The fossil mammal specimens housed in the Palaeontology Department are stored in drawers in over 400 cupboards fitted with drawers and shelves, as appropriate for the contents.

Arrangement:

The collections are divided up by geographical location:

  • Australia
  • South America
  • North America
  • Africa
  • Asia
  • Europe
  • Britain

A collection of global Mesozoic mammals is maintained separately.

The organisation of specimens within each of the geographical sub-collections varies:

  • Australian material is arranged taxonomically.
  • South American material is grouped into:
    • major collections, arranged taxonomically
    • separate Pleistocene and Tertiary collections
  • North American material is grouped into:
    • a general collection containing a wide range of material from many different sites across North America, arranged taxonomically
    • several collections from particular collection sites, each arranged taxonomically
    • a separate single collection of Pleistocene and Tertiary material
  • African material is grouped into:
    • major collections from particular localities or regions, each arranged taxonomically
    • separate Pleistocene and Tertiary collections
  • Asian Pleistocene and Tertiary material is kept separately from the rest of the Asian holdings.
  • European material is arranged primarily by country and locality, then taxonomically.
  • British material is arranged by county, then locality, with further subdivisions based on taxonomy and stratigraphy.
Labels:

Each drawer/shelf has a label identifying the contents taxonomically and, when known, their collection site. 

Curatorial projects:

We are working hard to record fossil mammal material in the Museum's electronic collections management system. 

Entries can be accessed using the online palaeontology specimen database. Due to the amount of work involved, it is likely to be some time before the entire collection is accessible through this medium.

Location

The fossil mammal collections are housed in 3 locations in London:

  • The Palaeontology Department at South Kensington.
  • The offsite store in Wandsworth. Material kept here includes our holdings of fossil elephant tusks and giant deer skulls with antlers.
  • Exhibition galleries in the Natural History Museum. A significant amount of material, most notably the larger mounted mammalian skeletons and casts, is on public display. Many mammalian groups are represented, fossil elephants and larger perissodactyls in particular.