Portret of Gustave Gilson (1859-1944), North Sea explorer and former director of the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences
1. Belgian Collections

The Belgian collections are kept separately. They comprise approximately 1 million specimens, mainly molluscs. A large proportion of this material comes from former RBINS director Gustave Gilson, who was one of the first Belgian oceanographers. He systematically sampled the North Sea between 1898 and 1939 and conducted research on the influence of the environment on North Sea organisms, and on the impact of fisheries on fish populations.
Of course, his colleagues also brought material back from expeditions to Belgian waters and on land, as they still do today. The collections are classified systematically and include both dry and wet specimens.


In the philosophy of the RBINS, reference collections were (and are) built from all corners of the world. Thus we have specimens that scientists collected during many foreign expeditions: the famous Belgica expeditions to the poles, the Mercator expedition (1935-1938), the hydrobiological exploration of Lake Tanganyika (1946-1947), the Mbizi oceanographical expedition (1948-1949), and the expeditions to the national parks of Zaire (1933-1957) and to Laing Island in Papua New Guinea (1976-1994). And that’s not including the countless smaller expeditions, frequently to exotic locations.

The “dry” specimens (shells) in these international collections are housed in 3000 wooden drawers, while the “wet” specimens (whole specimens retaining their internal organs) are contained in 10,000 glass jars. These collections are also classified systematically. 

Some Belgian species from the Dautzenberg shell collection
2. The Dautzenberg Collection

Other large collections that were purchased by the institute or that were donated are kept separately. The most famous of these is the Philippe Dautzenberg collection. Dautzenberg (1849-1935) was one of the best-known amateur malacologists of his time. In June 1935, the RBINS – then still known as the “Musée Royal d’Histoire Naturelle” – bought the majority of Dautzenberg’s collection. The resulting collection totalled 40,000 species (7000 of which are fossilised): 4.5 million specimens, in 300,000 lots, classified in 2000 (mostly open top) drawers. There is also the associated library of 8000 publications. The specimens are still in their original green cardboard boxes or in glass tubes stopped with cork or cotton. Each lot still retains the original handwritten labels.


The collection is taxonomically classified and to ensure that it is searchable, RBINS staff, under the direction of Dr. E. Leloup and Prof. Dr. W. Adam created a double catalogue card filing system. One card is classified according to species or subspecies, the other according to geographical region. In total, there are approximately 85,000 cards. The Dautzenberg collection is therefore entirely searchable on site, but unfortunately not yet digitalised. This is one of our next projects, and looks to be a mammoth task.

The Dautzenberg library is also searchable using a catalogue card filing system. This library includes almost every work on malacology (molluscs) up to 1934. Even in today’s digital world, it remains a very valuable research tool for malacologists the world over. Consultation of this library can take place only with the agreement of the curator, Yves Samyn. This library will be digitalised as soon as the required resources become available.

3. Other private collections

The RBINS is also home to other private collections. Some of the most eye-catching of these are the rich R. Van Belle chiton collection, the G. Poppe South Asian shell collection, the Mr. and Mrs. Buyle collections, and the R. Marquet collections.

4. Overview

It is the aim of our institution to have representatives of all invertebrate taxa and we have material from almost every large group. Below is an overview (not including molluscs – see Dautzenberg collection). Again, the Belgian collections are kept separately.


The Portuguese man o’ war, an invertebrate with a very powerful sting (Photo: Sean Nash, Flickr:
C. CNIDARIA: Hydrozoa (Hydra spp., etc.), Scyphozoa (jellyfish), Anthozoa (corals, gorgonians, sea anemones, etc.)
  • Characteristics: Cnidarians are animals with two basic body forms that correspond to their life stages: a polyp and a medusa. All are aquatic and most are marine. Approximately 9000 species have been described to date.
  • In our collections: The RBINS holds a very important collection of Cnidaria. Dr E. Leloup from the RBINS and Prof. Dr. Bouillon from the Université Libre de Bruxelles collected non-Siphonophoran Hydrozoa (hydroid polyps) – approximately 800 species in total, 65 of which are nominal species and varieties. The collection contains specimens in alcohol as well as microscope slides. It is completely inventoried and searchable using the DaRWIN database. We also have Siphonophora, colonial Hydrozoa that include the world-famous and dangerous Portuguese man o' war (Physalia physalis).
  • We have fewer Scyphozoa, but this is a reflection of their low diversity (there are only 200 known species). On the other hand, The Anthozoa collection is more impressive and includes soft and hard corals, gorgonians, sea pens, and sea anemones. It contains specimens from exotic locations such as the Maldives and Papua New Guinea. Within the hard corals, the family Fungiidae is especially well represented both the wet and dry collections. This is the result of dedicated collecting for research into the interactions between rock-boring Leptoconchus molluscs and corals and the ecology of this group.


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