Quaternary collections - Invertebrate and plant palaeontology


Kurt H. Kjær

Collection manager

Arden Bashforth (plants) & Kristian Gregersen (invertebrates)

About the collection

The invertebrate and plant palaeontology collection comprises Quaternary invertebrate animals, especially marine and, to a smaller extent, limnic molluscs. The collections concentrate on Denmark and Greenland, and cover the time span from Holocene back through four ice ages and three interglacials; from Greenland even as far back as the Early Pleistocene. There are also collections of interglacial marine molluscs from northern Russia and Siberia, as well as Sweden (Holocene), Svalbard (Holocene and interglacial), and Iceland (Early Pleistocene).

The plant collections are made up of macroscopic plant remains from late glacial clay, travertine and Holocene peats in Denmark, as well as Early Pleistocene wood from Greenland.

The Quaternary collections are associated with the Anthropocene-Quaternary Research Group.


  • Very comprehensive representation of last interglacial (Eemian) nearshore marine faunas from Denmark, Svalbard, and Russia, which unparalleled anywhere and described in numerous scientific papers dealing with past oceanographic change in the North Atlantic.
  • Early Pleistocene collections from very rare localities in the Arctic: Greenland, Iceland, and Svalbard.

Important subcollections and collectors

  • Dried peat from bogs in Northern Zealand and around Copenhagen, made by Japetus Steenstrup in the 1830’ies. They showed the variability of environments and vegetation over short (millennial) time scales, and became the founding stone for the division of the Holocene.
  • Carl Elberlings plant macrofossils in travertine, collected in the 1860’es, and showing the postglacial transition from tundra to forest.
  • Marine molluscs from the succession at Tjörnes, northern Iceland. This locality still plays a role in our understanding of climate change at the transition from the Tertiary to the Quaternary Periods. Extensive collections of marine molluscs, sampled by professor Johnstrup in the 1870’es, and later augmented by acquisitions from Hans Schlesch in the 1920’es.
  • The very rare Early Pleistocene arctic Quaternary marine fauna from Patorfik on the Nuussuaq peninsula in Greenland. First sampled by Hinrich Rink in the 1840’es, and later much augmented by the work Leifur Símonarson in the 1970’es.


The quaternary invertebrate and plant palaeontology collections have accumulated since the early 1800es, mainly as a tool for building the stratigraphy, which still forms the background for our understanding of the succession of ice ages and interglacials that characterised the Quaternary Period. This research began for earnest in the late 1800’ies, and in Denmark it was centered on the Geological Museum, which later also housed the Geological Surveys of Denmark and Greenland, respectively (now GEUS).

The surface geology of Denmark is almost completely constituted by Quaternary sediments, and this is clearly seen in the comprehensive collections from all parts of the realm, which have accumulated over more than 100 years.

In the late 1800’es The Geological Survey of Denmark became an independent institution, and began building its own collections, as documentation during systematic geological mapping - mainly molluscs and other organic remains. In 2010 these large collections were transferred to the Natural History Museum of Denmark, and incorporated in our collections.

Invertebrate and plant palaeontological collections have been instrumental in creating the picture of the changing past that still holds, even though physico-chemical methods have in many ways replaced paleontology since the 1950’es. However, palaeontology still plays a role, and the collections have also in recent times received fresh material especially from the Arctic, collected by expeditions with museum participation.

Unfortunately, in recent years the work with Quaternary collections has been greatly hampered by a series of incidents: restructuring of the buildings where they were kept, flooding, mold – in some cases even destruction of specimens. This in turn has led to repeated moving of different parts of the collections to different destinations. As a result the subcollections are now spread apart, and a major reorganization is badly needed to bring them back in state where the can serve their purpose as an important tool in geological research.