The palaeontology collections are amongst the oldest collections at the institute. They currently contain more than three million fossils – mostly vertebrates, invertebrates and plants. They are also the most diverse of our collections in terms of the range of taxons and the sizes of the specimens. Specimens range from nanofossils, smaller than a single cell up, to dinosaurs and whales. Managing these collections is often a Herculean task. 

Mammoth of Lier, found in 1860, mounted by Louis De Pauw

Today, we have around 35,000 trays of specimens, some stored in the 1,000 cabinets of 4 different archives and some in 132 shelves of five huge Compactus units (3.6 metres high). There is also a fifth archive that uses pallet racking to conserve the very large specimens, such as mosasaurs, iguanodons, and large Quaternary mammals.


Four Sections

Historically, the palaeontology collections have always been divided into four sections: Vertebrate Fossils (VF), Invertebrates of the Palaeozoic (IP), Invertebrates of the Secondary and Tertiary (IST), and Palaeobotany and Micropalaeontology (Pbot-Mpal). Within these collections, specimens are classified according to taxon (e.g. fish, gastropod), stratigraphy (e.g. Palaeozoic era, Ypresian era), and even sometimes by collector (e.g. Stockmans, Marquet, Maillieux, Dupont). 



New and old conservatories.

Alongside the general collections containing the new specimens that have yet to be studied, we currently have around 40,000 ‘type’ specimens, which are the reference specimens described by researchers in scientific journals.

The RBINS Palaeontology collections often receive visits from researchers from all over the world. Since 2007, there has been an average of 33 visitors per year. Researchers have come from 21 different countries, including Brazil, Japan and New Zealand. Research visit times vary from one day to a month. This represents approximately 119 days of visits per year (approximately half of RBINS work time).

It is interesting to note that certain specimens are ‘in fashion’ in different years. In 2009, researchers came to see our famous Bernissart Iguanodons, but in 2012, it was the mosasaurs that were popular.

Left: Fish mandibule degraded by pyrite. Right: Same fossil after restauration
Fool's gold

The curator and her assistants have to check the fossils regularly because of the constant threat of pyrite degradation.

Pyrite, an iron sulphide (FeS2) contained in the cracks of some fossils that are rich in organic matter, reacts with water and oxygen in the air to become iron sulphate (FeSO4). Because iron sulphate has a greater volume than the iron sulphide, this can break, or even shatter, the fossil. Hydrogen sulphide (H2S) is also formed during the reaction, and this dissolves the fossil, as well as corroding paper labels and storage boxes. Fossils containing pyrite therefore require special preservation conditions, including a relative humidity preferably below 30% and never higher than 50%.

This mineral, which takes the form of ‘golden’ cubes, is also known by the name ‘fool’s gold’, as gold prospectors used to sometimes confuse it with more precious nuggets. 

The 12.5-metre-long Belgian Mosasaur specimen, Hainosaurus bernardi, in our exposition
Participation in exhibitions

Alongside being used in scientific research that is aimed at a community of specialists, the fossils of the RBINS are often displayed in permanent and temporary exhibitions, in Belgium and abroad. Below are just a few of the exhibitions that the RBINS has collaborated with, along with the main specimens that were on show.


1. Permanent exhibitions at the RBINS

  • Dinosaurs Gallery (2007): the Bernissart Iguanodons
  • 250 years of Natural Sciences (2008): skeleton of a whale
  • Evolution Gallery (2009): fish, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, birds and small mammals from the Messel Pit
  • Mosasaurs Hall (2014): complete skeleton of a Hainosaurus


2. Temporary exhibitions at the RBINS

  • "Whales and Dolphins" (2008): two skulls of fossil dolphins
  • "PrehistoryDo it Yourself" (2012): two skulls of fossil canids
  • "Brain Twisters" (2014): cast of a dinosaur endocranium


3. Temporary exhibitions in Belgium:

  • "Prehisto Han": Speleogame building, Domain of the Caves of Han (2012): Five mammals from the Quaternary, on metal frames
  • Le passé comme si vous y étiez. Benoît Clarys, 25 ans d’illustrations archéologiques: Musée du Malgré-Tout", Treignes (2014): the Hoboken Mammoth (has not been on display in the permanent halls of the Museum since the 1970s)


4. Temporary exhibitions abroad:

  • "In the Shadow of the Dinosaurs": National Museum of Natural History, Paris, France (2008): 11 Messel Pit specimens
  • "The Shanghai World Expo": Shanghai, China (2010): One mosasaur skull, on a metal frame 
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