Fish collections

An x-ray of a fish against a white background

Peltorhamphus novaezeelandiae © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

The Museum's large collection of fishes is one of the most historically important collections in the world and dates back to the late eighteenth century. The collection is particularly notable for the thousands of type specimens and the global scope of the collection.

Historically, fish specimens were prepared dried as half-skins or stuffed and mounted skins until the middle of the 18th century.

Thereafter, fishes began to be preserved whole in alcohol and this eventually became the prime method of preserving animals of this group, particularly after its advocacy by Albert Gunther in his 1880 Introduction to the Study of Fishes

From 1900 onwards the use of formaldehyde as a fixative also became standard practice for fishes.  Routine tissue sampling prior to fixation did not become established until 2010. 

There is a total of 1.3m specimens in various categories in the Museum fish collection including:

  • 145,648 (ca. 0.5m total specimens) databased fluid-preserved lots
  • 1,156 databased skeletons
  • 411 databased cleared and stained
  • 6,206 databased stuffed/skins
  • 11,865 databased type lots 

Collection Strengths 

The taxonomic and geographical strengths of our fish collection reflect the activities of prominent ichthyologists who have worked here.

[Dates in brackets are biographical, those in square brackets are periods in office.]

  • Albert C. L. G. Gunther (1830-1914) [1857-1895]. Global Ichthyology. His Catalogue of Fishes (1859-1870) was hugely influential and stimulated a doubling in size of the fish collection.
  • George A. Boulenger  (1858-1937) [1883-1920]. African freshwater fishes.  
  • Charles Tate Regan (1878-1943) [1901-1938] Global Ichthyology, esp. Family Cichlidae, Suborder Gadoidei (cods and relatives) and deep sea fishes. He set the principle agenda for the Natural History Museum ichthyology for the whole of the nineteenth century.  
  • John R. Norman (1898-1944) [1921-1943]. Global Ichthyology, esp. Pleuronectiformes.
  • Ethelwynn Trewavas (1900-1993) [1928-1961]. Deep-Sea fishes, African cichlids (esp. Tilapiines), Family Sciaenidae (Drums or croakers), and Family Mugilidae (grey mullets).
  • Geoffrey Palmer (b.1912) [  -1975]. Family Trachipteridae (ribbon fishes) and Indo-Pacific marine fishes. 
  • Norman B. Marshall (1915-1996) [1947-1972]. Deep-Sea fishes.
  • Denys W. Tucker  (1921-2009)  [1949-1960]. Atlantic fishes.
  • Alwyne C. Wheeler (1929-2005) [1950-1989]. British fishes. 
  • Peter ‘Humphry’ Greenwood (1927-1995) [1958-1989]. Global Ichthyology, esp. Family Cichlidae.
  • Peter J. P. Whitehead (1930-1992) [1960-1989]. Order Clupeiformes and Indo Pacific marine Fishes.
  • Gordon J. Howes (1930-2013) [1968-1993]. Order Gadiformes.
  • Nigel B. Merrett (b. 1940) [1989-1999]. North Atlantic Marine fishes.
  • Darrell Siebert (b. 1955) [1987-2017]. S.E. Asian Freshwater fishes.
  • Anthony C. Gill (b.1962) [1994-2003] Indo-Pacific Marine fishes
  • Ralf Britz (b. 1964) [2004-2019] Asian Freshwater fishes esp. Myanmar

Key collections:

  • Mary Kingsley
  • Pieter Bleeker
  • James Cook 
  • Mungo Park
  • Francis Day
  • Charles Darwin
  • Challenger
  • Antarctic expeditions – James Clark Ross (‘Erebus and Terror’), Robert Scott (‘Discovery’ and ‘Terra Nova’), Ernest Shackleton (‘Quest’)
  • Institute of Oceanographic Sciences 
  • Ralf Britz Myanmar Collection

Geographical strengths:

  • African freshwater fishes
  • Asian freshwater fishes
  • Atlantic midwater fishes

Looking for a specimen?

The collection is being digitised

Senior curators

Acting Senior Curator in Charge, Vertebrates

Simon Loader

Senior Curator

Oliver Crimmen

Senior Curator

James Maclaine

Scientific Associates

Eleanor Adamson

Rupert Collins

Jonathan Cox

Ralf Britz

Antonia Ford

George Turner

Accessing the collections

Scientists and collections management specialists can visit the collections and borrow specimens for research.

Collections management

Our duty is to provide a safe and secure environment for all of our collections.

Collections on the move

We have set out on an ambitious programme to develop a new science and digitisation centre at Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire by 2026. As we prepare for the move, access to some collections will be affected.

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