The Museum's collections include many key specimens that have had a big impact on the study of evolution and the natural world. They include ‘missing links’ such as Archaeopteryx, a key transitional species between dinosaurs and birds, and Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis), the 3.3 million-year-old human ancestor who walked upright instead of on all fours.
Other specimens have received less acclaim, but this too makes the collections an exciting resource, because there is so much still to learn from them. In fact, new species that scientists were previously unaware of are being discovered in the collections all the time.
Explore the specimens that most inspire our scientists, from the giant squid to flying fish and the pale-throated three-toed sloth.
Thought to reach lengths of up to 15m, the giant squid is currently the largest known cephalopod. Specimens have been found in all of the world's oceans and the Museum has one in its collections which can be seen as part of the free Spirit Collections Tour. Find out more about this giant of the deep sea, as featured on the Museum of Life.
Leafcutter ants are the subject of the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2010 winning photograph. Ants in the genus Atta harvest leaves to cultivate fungus that they then eat. Castes of ants fulfil a range of tasks including collecting vegetation, tending fungus gardens, construction and defence. Find out more about this fascinating species.
Betta brownorum is a miniature species of fighting fish, first described in 1992. It is brightly coloured and about the size of your little finger. It is only found in the murky waters of peat swamp forests in south east Asia. Find out more about this feisty fish and what threatens its extreme habitat.
Cetonia aurata the rose chafer beetle is fairly common throughout the UK. The adults are fairly variable in colour from dark green through to some with a more golden-green sheen. Rose chafers are usually seen in sunny weather feeding on the petals of flowers especially roses. Find out more about this beautiful beetle, one of the largest flower visitors in Europe.
Chaudhuria ritvae is a tiny fish that is only now making its debut. It is an earthworm eel species, about the size of a match. It was first discovered in a shallow pool in Myanmar, by Ritva Roesler and Dr Ralf Britz in 2003. It has now been formally described and named by Ralf Britz, one of the Museum's fish researchers. Find out more about this minute fish and its diminutive relatives.
Cheirotonus parryi is an Asian beetle with surprisingly long forelegs. It was named in 1848 after Major FJS Parry, an English entomologist who was born two hundred years ago, on 28th October 1810. Much of Major Parry’s beetle collection resides here at the Museum. Read on to discover where this beetle lives in the wild, and what it likes to eat.
In 2008, Museum scientists described Craterostigmus crabilli for the first time. C crabilli is a centipede found in New Zealand and is one of only 2 centipedes in the order Craterostigmomorpha. For a long time scientists thought C crabilli and its Tasmanian relative C. tasmanianus were the same species. Genetic studies have shown that they diverged into separate species millions of years ago. Find out about this unusual centipede.
The Chacoan mouse opossum, is a tiny marsupial that seems to be thriving in Paraguay despite deforestation. The type specimen of this species was collected in Sapucay over a hundred years ago, and resides in the Museum’s collections. This species has been overlooked for decades as it was confused with Gracilinanus agilis. Explore the history of this ‘hidden dwarf’.
Ectoedemia heckfordi is a pigmy moth that was first discovered in Britain in 2004 by amateur naturalist, Bob Heckford. He initially spotted its bright green larva, rather than the adult moth - its wingspan is only about 5mm. Find out where you might spot this tiny moth and its tell-tale leaf mines.
Eumorpha labruscae, is an exotic hawkmoth that can grow to the size of your hand. This migrating moth is commonly found in South and Central America, and occasionally as far north as Canada. It is known as the gaudy sphinx thanks to its remarkable markings and the amazing array of colours on its wings. Discover how its colourful larvae mimic a snake to avoid predation, and how the adult moth seeks out a mate.
Euplectella aspergillum or Venus' flower baskets are deep sea animals known as glass sponges as their bodies are entirely composed of silica. These glass sponges are found deep in the South Pacific. Euplectella aspergillum was first described in 1841 by Sir Richard Owen who became the director of the Natural History Museum. Find out more about Venus' flower basket.
Gryphaea obliquata, the Devil’s toenail, is an extinct oyster known from the Dorset coast. It would have been well-known to the iconic British palaeontologist Mary Anning, famously known for her discoveries of Ichthyosaurs, Plesiosaurus and the pterosaur Dimorphodon. Find out more about Gryphaea obliquata and the life of Mary Anning.
Hamadryas feronia is a butterfly that is found across the Americas, from Texas to Argentina, and from southern Brazil to Paraguay. It is well camouflaged in its forest habitat, but the male makes itself known whilst flying using a loud clicking noise. Find out more about this beautiful butterfly and its unusual behaviour.
An extinct marine snail, Hippochrenes amplus is one of the earliest fossil species to use the binomial system of naming (genus and species). Fossils can be found in southern England, where its presence represents a shallow subtropical sea that extended over the area 40 million years ago. Find out more.
Idioneurula donegani is a recently discovered species of butterfly found in high elevation habitats in Colombia. Find out more about Idioneurula donegani.
Kukufeldia tilgatensis is an Iguanodon-like dinosaur that lived in the Cretaceous period over 130 million years ago. It has been described from a single jaw specimen that resides here at the Natural History Museum. The so-called ‘Brickenden jaw’ was for a long time thought to be from an Iguanodon. Find out what scientists discovered when they took a closer look at this unique fossil.
Macropanesthia rhinoceros the Australian rhinoceros cockroach is the heaviest cockroach species on earth. Endemic to Australia where it lives in burrows. Rhinoceros cockroachs are kept by some as exotic pets and have been mistaken by people for baby tortoises. Find out more about the rhinoceros cockroach.
Mandragora caulescens is a perennial herb native to China and the Himalayas. It has bell-shaped purplish flowers and green berries, and its roots are used in Chinese herbal medicine to treat acute respiratory shock. Find out exactly where the Himalayan mandrake grows and how to identify it.
Budgerigars are one of the world’s best-loved birds. They have been bred in captivity for more than 170 years and come in all shapes and sizes. But all captive budgies are descended from a single species of Australian parrot that lives in arid conditions in the Australian interior. Find out more about the budgie’s colourful history and how it provides fascinating insights into both natural and artificial selection.
Microdajus pectinatus is a member of a group of barnacle-like creatures called tantulocaridans. This group was first recognised as a distinct subclass of crustacea by Museum scientists in 1983. They live as parasites on other crustaceans including shrimps and can be found from the polar seas to the tropics. Read on to discover more about the life of this ‘so-small shrimp’.
The Aldabra brush warbler (Nesillas aldabrana) is a species presumed extinct after the last confirmed sighting in 1983. It was discovered in 1967 and was endemic to the tropical raised coral atoll of Aldabra in the western Indian Ocean. The introduction of black rats to Aldabra appears to have been a major cause of the species' disappearance. Find out more.
Paraconularia subtilis was first specimen ever described of an extinct organism called a conulariid. Paraconularia subtilis lived on the sea floor where it probably had long tentacles that it used to catch prey. The Museum has one of the largest collections of conulariids in the world with more than 1100 specimens. Find out more.
Phormidium pseudpriestleyi is a cyanobacterium that is well adapted to life in Antarctica where it is found in lakes and ponds. It protects itself against cold by producing antifreeze compounds, and against intense ultra-violet radiation with pigments that act as UV screens. Find out how you might spot this unusual bacterium.
The great auk (Pinguinus impennis) is an extinct species that, although not a true penguin, is known as the 'penguin of the north'. Great auks are thought to have been hunted by humans since prehistoric times, with the last known great auk hunt in 1844. Find out more about this species.
Find out more about Pipreola riefferii, the green-and-black fruiteater (chachapoyas).
Indigenous people in parts of Central and South America have an unusual way of dyeing cloth - by milking snails. Plicopurpura pansa produces a thick liquid from a gland which turns a rich indigo when exposed to sunlight. Find out how the dye is harvested and why its increasing popularity has an adverse effect on snail populations.
The African lungfish - Protopterus annectens - is an eel-like fish that has survived relatively unchanged for millions of years. It is a wonderful example of how animals can evolve from breathing water to breathing air. It breathes using lungs and can survive without water for months at a time. Find out more about this unique fish and what it tells us about our own evolutionary history.
Solanum sisymbriifolium is a prickly plant with sticky leaves and bright red fruits. It is native to South America, where it grows like a weed. It has been grown in Europe since the 18th century, where it is known as viscid nightshade thanks to the tiny hairs on its leaves and fruits. Discover more about this ‘spiny’ plant, and how farmers use it to control a potato pest.
Also known as the Japanese wonder shell, Thatcheria mirabilis can be found in deep waters from 60 to 400 metres. Find out more about this interesting and once highly sought after species, including how it reportedly provided inspiration for a famous museum's design.
Wodnika striatula (Zechstein shark) is a rare, extinct fossil shark that lived 257 million years ago. The Museum has a well-preserved complete specimen in its collections.
This species of flea is famous for carrying bubonic plague between rodents and humans. It was first described by Nathaniel Charles Rothschild in 1903. He found it amongst dead fleas in Cairo after an outbreak of bubonic plague. The specimens described by Rothschild are here in the collections at the Museum. Discover the power behind the flea’s jump and how it wreaks havoc on humans.
Acrocephalus orinus was originally described as a species in 1871 from 1 bird discovered in India. No further examples were identified for over 130 years, causing scientists to think the specimen belonged to another existing species. A molecular study on the type specimen in 2002 confirmed that Acrocephalus orinus is a discrete species. Follow the journey of discovery concerning this elusive bird.
Arocatus longiceps is a true bug that was first spotted in Britain in 2006. By 2007 it was common here in the Museum’s wildlife garden, but its identity remained a mystery for months afterwards. Find out more about this insect and why it was difficult to identify, and follow its travels across the globe.
Crocodylus anthropophagus lived alongside hominids in Tanzania nearly 2 million years ago. As its name suggests, it was a man-eating reptile, and some hominid fossils bear tell-tale teeth marks. This ancient crocodile has only recently been named from specimens held in collections in Tanzania, and others here at the Natural History Museum. Discover where this reptile lived, and what makes it unique.
Most termites are difficult to see because they live out-of-sight, underground or in dead wood. Hospitalitermes hospitalis is easy to observe because it forms long columns of soldiers and workers that go foraging across the rainforest floor during daylight hours. Find out more about the curious habits of this processional termite, and its chemical weaponry.
Isoetes biafrana was first described by former Museum scientist Arthur Hugh Alston in 1956, and the type specimen is held in the Museum’s hryptogamic herbarium. It is a small aquatic plant known as a quillwort that reproduces by producing spores. Find out more about this rare plant and how it has adapted to its aquatic habitat.
Lecanopteris spinosa is an intriguing fern species that has a mutually beneficial relationship with ants. Whilst the fern’s rhizome provides shelter for the ant colony, the ants provide nutrients for the plant. Read on to discover more about this unusual plant and how it has adapted to accommodate its helpful tenants.
The sweetgum tree, Liquidambar styraciflua, is native to the Americas but is commonly cultivated in the UK. It has striking purple, red and yellow leaves in autumn and as its name suggests, it exudes a resin that can be used in many ways including as an adhesive, and in soaps and medicines. Find out more about this beautiful tree.
Parides agavus is a large and beautiful butterfly that lives in undisturbed forest areas in Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil. The caterpillars feed on plants containing aristolochic acids - these are toxic to many of its potential predators. Adult Parides agavus usually only live for about 2 weeks. Discover more about the life of this striking butterfly.
Platycoma sudafricana is smaller than a pinhead, and is found living freely in marine environments in South Africa. This nematode worm can withstand extremes of temperature and salinity, and probably feeds by scraping plant particles from single grains of sand. Take a closer look at this tiny animal, and discover how nematode populations can be used to study environmental change.
Rhopalomyzus lonicerae, like many aphids, is sometimes regarded as a pest. During the summer of 2010 it made a dramatic appearance in the wildlife garden at the Museum. Discover how this fascinating insect speeds up its reproductive cycle to produce armies of aphids, and how natural biocontrol agents can annihilate them.
Rigidipenna inexpectata is a rare bird found only on a few of the Solomon Islands. It is a nocturnal species and remains hidden in forested regions, but makes characteristic whistling sounds to communicate. Read on to discover more about this typical frogmouth and the threats it faces from deforestation.
Sminthurus viridis is a springtail species that is native to Europe but, since its introduction to the southern hemisphere, has become an agricultural pest. This tiny animal can decimate crops such as clover and lucerne as numbers reach a million per square metre. Discover more about the life of the lucerne flea, and how recent DNA studies are helping scientists explore the springtail's evolutionary relationship with insects.