Discovery collections

The Discovery collections originate from a number of different expeditions (1901-1999) and include a wide range of marine specimens that may be of use for ocean acidification research. The collection of pteropods may be of particular importance - if CO2 emissions were to continue unabated, southern ocean surface waters might be unsuitable for aragonitic pteropods by mid-century (Hunt et al. 2008).

The vast Discovery collections at the Natural History Museum represents a potentially valuable source of baseline information to examine whether calcification rates have already been altered in the southern oceans over the past century.

Possible caveats:

  • Nearly all Discovery calcareous organisms in the Zoology Department have been preserved in alcohol. Since alcohol can enhance shell dissolution, their research value is currently uncertain.
  • Most of the Discovery foraminifera collection comes from ocean bottom sediment grabs. It is difficult to know whether specimens were collected dead or alive - their collection date isn’t necessarily their date of death.


Organisms included: 

Bryozoans, cetacean parts, chaetognathes, cnidarians, ctenophores, crustaceans, echinoderms, echiurans, fish, molluscs, plankton, polychaetes, pteropods, sipunculids, sponges, urochordates, foraminifera.

Geographical location covered:

Collections are primarily from the Atlantic, most notably from the southern Atlantic and Antarctic waters.

Plankton samples were collected from the south Atlantic and southern oceans between the 1920s and 1950s.

Timespan covered:

The collections begin with the expedition to the Antarctic in 1901-1904 and continue through the 20th century.

The most prominent research ships that made collections are:

  • RRS Discovery (1901-1931)
  • William Scoresby (1926-1950)
  • RRS Discovery II (1929-1951)
  • Discovery (1962)
Location of collections:

All the Discovery expedition collections are located at the Natural History Museum, London. They were moved here in the 1990s when the Institute of Oceanographic Sciences (IOS) relocated from Wormley to the National Oceanographic Centre at Southampton.

The foram slide collection and ocean bottom residues can be found in the in Palaeontology Department. All other specimens are housed in the Zoology Department or within bulk samples from the ocean bottom deposit collection in the Mineralogy Department.

Curation and Collection Management

Zoological Discovery specimens are curated separately from Discovery foraminifera.

Zoological specimens

Preservation and storage:

There are an estimated 5 million specimens in the Zoology Department (Rainbow 2005) preserved within:

  • 70,612 spirit jars (in an alcohol and formalin mix). There are approximately 5,200 spirit jars of Discovery pteropods.
  • 3,623 slides

Every spirit jar is labelled with precise collection information, including:

  • station numbers
  • dates
  • depths

With the exception of 26,542 plankton samples, the collection has largely been split up into taxonomic groups, but generally not at the species level (Rainbow 2005). 

See a complete taxonomic listing of the Discovery collections in the Zoology Department

Database information:

12,888 zoological Discovery specimens (11,633 of which are fish) have been entered into the online Zoology specimen database.

Collection date and station number are not currently available online. However, all collection information is readily available on the jars themselves for all taxa.

Visit the Zoology specimen database


Preservation and storage:

Forams are the only Discovery expedition organisms not housed in the Zoology Department. They can be found in:

  1. Mineralogy Department: 
    • 677 ocean bottom deposit accessions (containing samples from multiple stations from 1901-1966)
  2. Palaeontology Department:
    • 782 samples (mostly in glass tubes/bottles) of washed ocean bottom residues from 332 stations (1925-1936)
    • Close to 500 slides (generally containing more than one species)
    • A portion of the Discovery foram slides were curated and identified by Edward Heron-Allen and form part of his type slide collection.
    Go to the Heron-Allen slide collection
Database information:

An excel database is available for the Heron-Allen collection that contains a portion of the Discovery foram slides. Information is arranged according to research ship. For each slide, it contains:

  • taxonomic information - genus and species
  • collection locality - including station number, written geographic locality and depth

Full Heron-Allen slide collection database Excel (5.6 MB)

There are also databases of the Discovery ocean bottom deposit and residue samples:

Discovery ocean bottom deposit samples database Excel (330.5 KB)


Discovery residues database Excel (134.5 KB)

Supporting information

Scientific reports on the taxa collected during Discovery expeditions are available online.

The Discovery foraminifera reports are in three volumes and contain a detailed list of the species collected - predominately from RRS. Discovery and William Scoresby. All of the listed specimens have been curated as slides and are stored in the Palaentology Department.

Besides the taxonomy, the most important feature of these reports is the station information where particular species were collected.

Discovery taxonomic and summary reports on the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Contact information

Ocean bottom deposits

David Smith
Mineralogy Curator
Natural History Museum, London

Foram slides and ocean bottom residues

Clive Jones
Palaeotology Curator
Natural History Museum, London

Zoology specimens

See the zoology collections staff list

Discovery reports

Related databases

Excel files

If you are unable to open the Excel file please contact the Curator to request the document in another format.


  • Hunt, BPV, Pakhomov, EA, Hosie, GW, Siegel, V, Ward, P, Bernard, K (2008)
    Pteropods in Southern Ocean ecosystems. Progress in Oceanography 78: 193-221.
  • Rainbow, PS (2005) From natural history to biodiversity: collections of discovery.
    Archives of natural history
    32 (2): 221-230.