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Darwin's Beagle fossils and their significance for his evolutionary thought

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When Darwin embarked on the Beagle voyage in 1831 he considered himself primarily a geologist, having been enthused and trained in the subject by the Rev Adam Sedgwick. During the voyage he made copious observations on the geology of South America and wrote a book on the subject on his return. He was also fascinated by fossils, and made several major discoveries, which he himself acknowledged as having been one of the most important factors in leading him to his theory of evolution. These included skulls and skeletons of several extinct Pleistocene large mammals new to science, leading Darwin to think about endemism and extinction; marine shells found high in the Andes which forcibly brought home to him the dynamic nature of the Earth; and subfossil corals from the Pacific and Indian Oceans that led him to theorise about the origin of coral reefs. The talk will be illustrated with images of Darwin’s original specimens, many of which survive in museum collections.

Adrian Lister read Zoology at Cambridge and completed his PhD here on evolution in Pleistocene deer. After postdoctoral research in the Zoology Department and a Research Fellowship at Girton College, he moved to University College London as a lecturer in 1991, becoming Professor of Palaeobiology in 2002. In 2007 he took up a post of Research Leader at the Natural History Museum. He is the author of over 150 scientific papers and four books, Evolution on Planet Earth, Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age, Mammoths: Ice Age Giants, and a children’s book, Tracker’s Guide to Ice Age Animals. His work focusses on the evolution and extinction of mammals of the Ice Age, especially deer, elephants and mammoths. In addition to excavating and studying fossil material from around the world, he has studied living elephants in Ghana, India, Nepal and Borneo.

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