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.


Glycera, a ringed worm (Annelid)
12. Annelida (segmented worms): Polychaeta (bristle worms), Oligochaeta (earthworms, etc.), Hirudinea (leeches)
  • Characteristics: Annelids are segmented worms with bodies that have both circular and longitudinal muscle fibres. All annelida, apart from leeches, have transparent, moist cuticles with hair-like structures called setae. The largest class of annelids are the almost exclusively marine polychaetes. On each body segment, polychaetes have a pair of fleshy protrusions called parapodia bearing bristles called chaetae. The discovery, in 2004, of the genus Osedax, a group of deep-sea polychaetes that live exclusively on the bones of whales, proves how much biodiversity still remains to be explored. The discovery of Osedax was announced in Science in 2004 (doi:10.1126/science.1098650).
  • The hermaphroditic earthworms are perhaps the best-known class of annelids. They are characterised by the possession of a clitellum, a localised thickening of the body, and by having relatively few setae. They have the ability to produce more setae throughout their life. Despite their name, a third of all earthworms live in freshwater and a few in marine habitats.
  • Leeches are blood sucking hermaphroditic annelids that, like oligochaetes, posses a clitellum. However, they lack setae and chaetae. They have jaws and suckers that allow them to attach to their hosts.
  • In our collections: The RBINS has a representative collection of Belgian species. The number of specimens in the foreign species collection varies by class. We have important collections from special locations such as Lake Baikal and National Parks in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the last decade, we have acquired earthworms as a result of the subterranean explorations of water basins in Slovenia, Belgium, France (Mercantour National Park), and, most recently, Morocco.
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