Animals in Jars

A group of glass jars with small reptiles preserved inside.

Reptiles preserved in jars

© Trustees of the NHM, London

    • If you’ve ever been lucky enough to go behind the scenes at a natural history museum you might have seen something a little peculiar, you might have seen a whole load of different animals sitting in little jars.

      Humans have been collecting different animal species for centuries, the trend really took off in the Age of Discovery (around 1500 – 1700 C.E.) when scientists like Charles Darwin traveled all around the world to find and learn about all the different species on our planet. These scientists were very careful to collect one example of each species and bring it home with them so that the rest of the scientific community could learn about that animal too.

      As time went on, and more and more species were collected, some very interested scientists opened museums specifically to hold all of these different animals.

      Shelves of creatures preserved in jarsSpirit collection© Trustees of the NHM, London
      Why are some of them kept in Jars? Well, glass jars make for very sensible storage as they are see-through so it’s easy for us to look in and see which animal is inside. This means that all of the curious visitors can have a nose around and can inspect all of the different animals without having to get them out.

      In order to keep the specimens in good condition they have to be kept in special preserving liquids, often this is as simple as 70% alcohol however for some of the rarer or more complicated specimens a special mixture must be made to keep them fresh, often combining acids and water with alcohol. Keeping them in a jar means we can keep them submerged in these liquids so they will last in good condition for hundreds of years. The Natural History Museum in London has one of the biggest collections of wet specimens in the world. You can watch them preserving a new addition in this video.

      While it might sound a little strange to keep all of these dead animals in jars it definitely has its uses as it allows curious people like us to go and learn more about the animals we share our world with.

      What goes into the jars?

      Across the collections in the UK there are millions and millions of different things preserved in liquids and in jars. Here are just a few examples of places you can go and visit and things you can go and see.

      One of the most famous is the Jar of Moles at the Grant Museum, rather than just one animal this jar holds 18 moles! Although we’re not too sure why so many moles were stuffed into this jar it definitely makes for an interesting spectacle.
      The Natural History Museum also has a huge collection of different animals stored in this way. They have lots of sea creatures, like Archie the Giant Squid, as well as reptiles such as snakes and chameleons. They even have a jar of monkeys!

      The Horniman Museum in London is home to around 250,000 natural history specimens. Some of these are stored in jars for visitors to see. One example is their Slow Loris who needed re-homing recently; you can read all about how they did this on their website.

      3 lizards preserved in glass jars.Lizards in Jars© Trustees of the NHM, London
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