14 must-see specimens in the spirit collection
The Museum has over 23 million specimens stored in alcohol in the spirit collection.
Preserving specimens in alcohol is not a new technique. The Museum's earliest wet collections date from the early 1700s. Explore 14 highlights from the collection, including specimens collected by Captain James Cook, a giant squid, and Charles Darwin's pet octopus.
1. Darwin's octopus (Octopus vulgaris)
This small, unassuming common octopus (Octopus vulgaris) can fit in the palm of your hand. This specimen is the one that Darwin took live on HMS Beagle, before preserving it in alcohol. Darwin wrote to Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow about how the octopus could change colour and squirt ink. He believed it to be a new species, but this type of octopus had been known for a long time.
2. Captain Cook's I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea)
The spirit collection includes specimens from Captain James Cook's voyages including a rare I'iwi (Vestiaria coccinea), which was collected in Hawaii between 1778 and 1779. These specimens were donated to the British Museum and John Hunter in 1792, but only two examples survive today. The I'iwi, or scarlet honeycreeper, is the third most common native land bird in Hawaii.
3. Leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea)
Instead of a shell, this turtle's back is covered with smooth, leathery skin strengthened by bony plates. It is the only reptile known to control its body temperature, allowing it to dive into deeper, cooler waters. It can grow to almost two metres in length and weigh up to 500 kilogrammes.
This species is one of five marine turtles that can be spotted in the UK. All seven marine turtle species are now endangered, with international laws in place to stop them being hunted.
4. The tank room
This room can be considered a highlight of the collection due to its impressive size and contents. The tank room stores reptile, fish and mammal specimens. Star specimens include Archie the giant squid (see number 14 on this list), a rare deep-sea angler fish, and fishes and other animals collected by Charles Darwin on HMS Beagle. Many of these are type specimens – the examples originally used to identify new species – and these are kept in jars with yellow tops.
5. Vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis)
With blue eyes, purple-tinged skin and webbing between the arms, it's no surprise that this animal's scientific name - Vampyroteuthis infernalis - translates to 'vampire squid from hell'. These animals live in the oceans at depths of up to 3,000 metres, where there is almost no oxygen or light.
If attacked, it can quickly turn itself inside out for protection. Vampire squid can also shoot a glow-in-the-dark mucus which deters potential predators. A specimen is also on display in the Marine Invertebrates gallery.
6. Antarctic bird specimens
The bird spirit collection contains specimens from several important Antarctic expeditions including the Discovery (1901-1904) and Terra Nova (1910-1912) expeditions led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott, and the Shackleton-Rowett expedition led by Ernest Shackleton and later Frank Wild (1921-1922).
These expeditions formed the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration during which the geographical and magnetic poles were both reached and new species were collected.
7. Fijian bar-winged rail (Nesoclopeus poecilopterus)
For some bird species, the spirit collection contains some of the only known spirit specimens anywhere in the world. For example, the Fijian bar-winged rail (Nesoclopeus poecilopterus) is most likely extinct. The Fijian bar-winged rail was a flightless bird believed to have disappeared after the introduction of cats and mongoose to the islands. It was last collected in 1890 and the most recent unconfirmed sighting of the bird was in 1973.
8. Francis' woolly horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus francisi)
This bat, which has been in the spirit collection for the last 30 years, has been revealed to be the first member of a previously unknown species – the Francis' woolly horseshoe bat (Rhinolophus francisi). The species is named after Charles M. Francis, who collected the specimen in Malaysia in 1983. While new species of insects and fish are found often, finding new mammals is rare.
9. Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus)
The platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus) is famous for its puzzling mix of features. As well as its iconic duck bill, it lays eggs like a bird or reptile but feeds milk to its young like a mammal. They also have poisonous spurs on their feet, but only use these in breeding season not for defence. When the first platypus was sent back to Europe, it was thought to be a hoax.
10. Durian fruit (Durio zibethinus)
The durian fruit (Durio zibethinus) is infamous for its terrible smell, which has been described as rotting meat, onions, raw sewage and even socks. The smell is so strong that it's been banned on public transport in Thailand, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore.
If you are curious to know what it tastes like, it is said to have a flavour that is sweet, savoury and creamy. Scientists believe a mix of over 50 chemicals combine to make durian so pungent. As well as the specimen in the spirit collection, this image from the John Reeves Collection of Botanical Drawings is also held at the Museum.
11. Coconut crab (Birgus latro)
The coconut crab (Birgus latro) is the world's largest terrestrial invertebrate. Described by Darwin as growing to a 'monstrous size', this crab can produce up to 1,500 newtons of force to crack open its favourite food: coconuts. As well as coconuts, the crab also eats hermit crabs, rats, and even live birds. Born in the ocean, they move to the shore and lose their ability to breathe underwater – adult coconut crabs can't even swim.
12. Largetooth sawfish (Pristis pristis)
Sawfish are big rays with long, chainsaw-like noses, called rostrums, which are lined with sharp teeth used to kill their prey. They are the most endangered of all sharks and rays. All five species of sawfish are at threat from extinction. One study shows that largetooth sawfishes eat stingrays, and several jaw specimens in the Museum's collections have stingray spines embedded in them.
13. White water lily (Nymphaea alba)
Found in local ponds and canals, European white water lilies (Nymphaea alba) are identifiable by their large white flowers. They can grow up to five metres deep and their large lily pad leaves provide shelter for frogs and nectar for insects in winter. You can find European white water lilies blooming in our Wildlife Garden in summer.
14. Giant squid (Architeuthis dux)
The giant squid (Architeuthis dux) is so rare that it was once thought to be a myth. The Museum's specimen, known as Archie, was acquired when it was accidentally caught by a fishing trawler at a depth of 220 metres. At 8.62 metres long, the specimen was a challenge to preserve and house, but it was too good an opportunity to miss. DNA samples taken from Archie helped to prove that there is only one species of giant squid.