HMS Challenger: how a 150-year-old expedition still influences scientific discoveries today

HMS Challenger spent four years conducting scientific measurements around the world between 1872 and 1876. Image © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London (All Rights Reserved).

Over a century ago, one of the most important scientific expeditions in history departed from the UK to explore the world’s oceans.

When HMS Challenger left Portsmouth on 21 December 1872, the crew of scientists and sailors aboard had little idea what they would discover over the next four years. Though some would depart the expedition early, and others would never return, their voyage would discover thousands of species, locate the deepest trench on Earth, and even contribute to our knowledge of space.

As the Challenger expedition approaches its 150th anniversary, scientists are continuing to make new discoveries from the specimens collected by these Victorian pioneers. 

Across Challenger‘s long voyage, specimens had been periodically packed up and sent back to the UK, where they were stored at the University of Edinburgh. Remarkably, only three bottles arrived broken from among thousands of samples shipped halfway around the world.

The specimens were then sent to the leading scientists of the day in their field, with extensive reports compiled over the next decade. Eventually, the type specimens, which are the named representatives of a species, were sent to the Museum while duplicate specimens were split across other institutions.

Even 150 years later, these specimens are still important for research. Stephen, for instance, is hoping to make use of samples from other collections to assess how foraminifera are being affected by climate change in greater detail.

‘Comparing Challenger material to that from other expeditions, such as the Discovery cruise, would allow us to map these changes in more detail, and may allow us to predict how these species could change in the future,’ Stephen says. ‘This could also involve taking a closer look at how acidification has changed in the past 150 years.’

James Ashworth, Natural History Museum, 6 September 2022. Full article.

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