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Linnaean Insect, Fish & Shell Collections

These collections of Insects, Fishes and Shells are of critical importance to the correct naming and identification of zoological specimens.

The type specimens represent the original concept of new species. The specimens and illustrations used when assigning binomial scientific names are the foundation stones of taxonomy.


History and importance of the Collection

The Society holds some 9,000 specimens, including 3,200 Linnaean ones, of which many are important types.


After acquiring the collections from the widow of Linnaeus in 1784, Sir James Edward Smith, the founder and first President of the Linnean Society, added his own specimens to the collection, almost trebling its size. Because of difficulties in recognising all the material interpolated by Smith it has been maintained as a single historic collection.

Besides insects as we understand them today, the collection also includes such things as spiders, scorpions, millipedes and crabs – all ‘insects’ as Linnaeus understood them.

The prime scientific importance of the Linnaean part of the collection is as type specimens for the species which he described. Smith's material (which can often be distinguished from Linnaeus' by the type of pins used to secure specimens) is a valuable source of information on insects from around the globe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.



By the time of his death in 1778, Linnaeus had named some 305 species of butterfly, all but 6 of which still bear their Linnaean name today.

For more information, view or download the Linnaean Butterflies Leaflet.

For a more in-depth introduction to the Butterfly collection see "Linnaeus' Butterflies" by R. I. Vane-Wright in The Linnean Special Issue No. 7, 2007, 'The Linnaean Collections').


View or download the Linnaean Hymenoptera Leaflet.

Examples of Linnaeus' “top” Hymenoptera species are:

Red tailed bumble bee

  • The honey bee (Apis mellifera L.) is one of the few domesticated species of insect. It supplies us with honey and beeswax and it is the pollinator of many important crops.
  • The ruby-tailed wasp (Chrysis ignita L.) belongs to a group which lay their eggs in the nests of other solitary wasps and bees. Because of this habit they are also called cuckoo wasps.
  • The red tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius L.) is common and widespread. It is frequently seen in gardens.

Linnaean Fishes

The collection holds 168 fish specimens consisting mostly of dried skins from one side incorporating half of the skeleton.

There are a number of important type specimens in the collection, including the John Dory Zeus faber.

History and taxonomic importance

Zeus faber fish

Linnaeus observed fishes when travelling around Sweden. He is thought to have collected 48 of the extant 168 specimens, assiduously writing up his findings in many published accounts.

His main taxonomic influence was his good friend Petrus Artedi (1705-1735), a brilliant ichthyologist. After Artedi’s early death, Linnaeus edited and completed his work on fishes, publishing it posthumously for him as the Ichthyologia (1753). It is a magnificent starting point for both fish systematics and general descriptive taxonomy.

In 1758, Linnaeus published the 10th edition of the Systema Naturae, the recognised starting point for biological classification. He first focused on fishes well-known in Europe and commonly encountered in Swedish waters, for example the sturgeon Acipenser sturio, carp Cyprinus carpio, perch Perca fluviatilis and Atlantic salmon Salmo salar. Such names have stood the test of time. Looking at fishes from the current British freshwater list alone, a remarkable 41 out of 57 (or 72%) are Linnaean species.

A substantial number of additional fishes eventually came to be included as exotic components in the Systema, including the Nile perch Lates niloticus and the Electric catfish Malapterurus niloticus.

Linnaeus’ fullest account of fishes was in the 12th edition of the Systema Naturae (1766-67). About 414 species of fish were recognised during Linnaeus’ lifetime, 9,000 in Darwin’s time and more than 25,000 today. Currently, about 200 fish species new to science are described each year, with a projected total of above 35,000.

For more information on the Linnaean Fishes see "Linnaeus' Fishes, Past, Present and Future" by Gordon McGregor Reid PPLS in The Linnean Special Issue No. 7, 'The Linnaean Collections'

Shell and Supplementary Collections


There are over 3,000 shells with reliable Linnaean provenance. There is also a limited number of “supplementary” collections containing corals, barnacles, crabs, brachiopods, sea urchins, starfish, sponges, and foraminifera.

The collections include verified type material. All major worldwide groups of shells are represented, the coverage reflecting the stage of exploration that had been reached in the early 19th century.

The collections also contain the priceless ‘Linnaean pearls’ – the first examples of spherical pearl culture.

Linnaeus’ interest in shells probably dates from his student years. In 1727, while at Lund University, he regularly attended the lectures on molluscs given by the eminent professor, Dr Kilian Stobaeus (1690-1742), which initiated a real interest. In 1731, he visited Stockholm where he acquired a large number of specimens for his growing collections. His collection continued to be augmented by contributions from those travelling to distant lands, including many ex-students, and it became the finest in Sweden, after that of Queen Louisa Ulrica. In a document discovered after his death, Linnaeus stated that “The shell cabinet is worth at least 12,000 dalers”. This would be around £276,000 today. As the basis of all shell nomenclature the collections are now truly priceless.

In the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae (1758), Linnaeus published the descriptions of over 700 molluscan species. Nine years later, in the 12th edition, the number had increased by over 100. 28 more were described later. Today, Linnaeus’ molluscan species represent only a portion of the mollusc fauna now known. Molluscan taxonomy has undergone substantial revision since the 18th century and work continues on revising and describing the collections.

An additional collection of Linnaeus' shells is held at the University Zoological Museum, Uppsala.

For more information on the Linnaean shell collection see "The Linnaean shell collection at Burlington House" by Kathie Way in The Linnean Special Issue No. 7, 'The Linnaean Collections'.


Linnaeus produced the first ‘artificial’ spherical pearls ever cultured in any mollusc, from salt or freshwater. These are now part of the Linnaean Collections.

Linnaean pearls

Linnaeus used the freshwater mussel Unio pictorum L. (the “Painter’s Mussel”, so called because artists would use the shallow valves to mix their pigment). He removed the shells from the river, drilled a small hole in them and inserted a tiny granule of limestone or plaster between the mantle and the shell. To produce a free pearl rather than a blister pearl he held this small bead away from the shell's inner surface with a "T" shaped silver wire. The pearl mussels were returned to the riverbed for six years and in many cases resulted in pearls of modest quality.

Linnaeus sold the secret to a Swedish merchant called Peter Bagge in 1762 for 6,000 “dalars“ (approximately £1,250, which would be over £93,000 today). Bagge obtained a monopoly permit from the King of Sweden to develop pearl culture but neither he, nor his grandson, ever took up the idea and put it into practice.

A set of Linnaeus’ experimental pearls travelled the world from 2001 to 2007 as part of the blockbuster exhibition “Pearls” organised by the American Museum of Natural History in New York. They have been exhibited in Abu Dhabi, Australia, Canada, Japan, and The United States.