HMS Challenger collection

Scientists aboard the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-76) collected a vast amount of natural history material and oceanographic data from around the globe, and the Natural History Museum holds most of the specimens. The onboard naturalist, John Murray, described it as the ‘greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet…’.

Considering the precise recording of locality and collection date, and the extensive taxonomic and summary reports available, some Challenger collections are potentially useful as a baseline for research on the biotic effects of ocean acidification.

Details

Marine calcareous organisms included:
  • Ostracods
  • Echinoderms (including ophiuroids)
  • Brachiopods
  • Molluscs (gastropods and bivalves)
  • Corals
  • Foraminifera
  • Bryozoans
Geographical location covered:

The expedition visited 362 observation stations around the globe.

See chart and station information on the University of Kansas Natural History Museum website
Location of collections:

Foram specimens are stored in the Palaeontology Department of the Natural History Museum, London. Other specimens are stored in the Zoology Department.

Curation and collection management

There is no single Challenger collection in the Natural History Museum but rather numerous separate collections.

After the expedition the marine biological samples were divided up and dispersed to international experts to monograph. The sediment samples all went to Edinburgh with John Murray. However, most of the material has ended up in the Natural History Museum. This includes all John Murray's material and his library but also many other collections  which have been acquired in various ways.

In general, marine calcareous specimens from the Challenger expedition have been split up taxonomically and placed within specific zoology and palaeontology (forams) collections.

Database information

The zoological collections from the HMS Challenger expedition  at the Museum can be searched via the Zoology specimen database, by typing ‘Challenger’ in the expedition field.

Visit the Zoology specimen database

It is also possible to set other search criteria, including:

  • kind of collection (dry, wet, etc)
  • taxonomic details
  • geographic area

In Autumn 2009, 2,870 accessions of dry Challenger specimens were searchable online, and 2,087 wet specimens.

Alternatively, information about specific taxa and localities (station numbers) can be found via online taxonomic and summary reports.

Challenger taxonomic and summary reports (www.19thcenturyscience.org)
Destructive sampling

Considering the historic and biological significance of the majority of the specimens (many are type or figured specimens) destructive analyses would not generally be allowed. However, the original samples from which the benthic invertebrate specimens were picked can be found in the ocean bottom deposit and residues collections. These should be more readily available for destructive analysis after departmental review.

Linking Challenger benthic invertebrates with ocean bottom deposits and residues

Supporting information

At each observation station, detailed physical and biological data were recorded and collected, including:

  • precise latitude and longitude
  • temperature of the air and seawater at varying depths
  • depth of the ocean bottom
  • types of marine taxa collected at varying depths (genus and species)
  • method of collection (surface net, dredge, trawl, etc)
  • a sample of the ocean bottom deposit at each station (from which benthic invertebrates were collected)
  • a measurement of the amount of carbonic acid present at varying depths (recorded at some stations)

A detailed summary of the physical and biological data collected at each station is available online from the 1895 summary report by John Murray. It gives a full account of what organisms were collected at each station and whether they were found and collected at other stations.

For example, subsequent to a complete list of the specimens collected, the narrative for station 50 in the summary report is as follows: ‘Nearly 100 specimens of invertebrates were obtained at this station, belonging to about 23 species, of which 12 are new to science, including representatives of 3 new genera; 7 of the new species were not obtained elsewhere.’

Read John Murray's 1895 summary report on www.19thcenturyscience.org