Close up of a drawer full of colourful preserved insect specimens against a beige background

Natural history collections

Informing our understanding of the natural world
Our natural history collections contain a remarkable array of zoological specimens, providing a valuable perspective on 19th-century ecology and biodiversity.

Over three generations, the Macleay family collected insects to form a collection that ultimately expanded into all areas of zoology. Alexander Macleay (1767–1848), his son William Sharp Macleay (1792–1865) and his nephew William John Macleay (1820–1891) were principally responsible for the Macleay natural history collections we value today.

The entomology collection was founded during the heady days of international insect trading of the late 18th century. Alexander Macleay had enviable access to the latest material through his role as Secretary of the Linnean Society of London (1798–1825). With his posting as Colonial Secretary of NSW in 1825, he took with him from England one of largest and the most celebrated collections in Europe. William Sharp Macleay was a distinguished philosophical naturalist, consulted with by Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley for his ideas on the classification of the natural world. He added to his father's collections, particularly with specimens from South Africa and the Americas. Both collections were inherited by Murrumbidgee squatter and politician, William John Macleay who expanded the collections into all areas of zoology. With his curator George Masters, he avidly collected in Australia and purchased international specimens. Founder of the Linnean Society of NSW, he also led the first Australian overseas scientific expedition (to New Guinea) on the Chevert.

These zoological collections, along with a large collection of cultural material made across Oceania, were donated to the University for for the benefit of teaching and research in 1874.

Scarab beetles pinned and lined up in a display cabinetScarab beetles

We curate over 300,000 international insect specimens. Unique in Australia, because of the provenance and age of the specimens as well as their curation, the collection is used for research by entomologists and historians.

Celebrated collection items include the 'whistle cricket', Gryllus spinulosus, collected in 1756 from North Africa, insects from 'New Holland' collected before 1818, lice acquired on HMS Resolution by Johann and George Forster from an albatross on the 24 October, 1772 and a flea taken from an armadillo by Charles Darwin.

These illustrious insects carefully pinned in bespoke furniture cabinets are part of Alexander and William Sharp Macleay's legacy. Today thousands are maintained in their 19th century taxonomic pinnings within the original wood and glass cabinets.

As the collection grew George Masters, and subsequent curators (such as Keith Henry, Elizabeth Hahn, 'Woody' Horning and Elizabeth Jefferys) have slowly re-pinned material to reflect modern taxonomic order. We have recently embarked on assigning a unique number to each animal. Spiders and weevils can now be searched for online.

There are significant numbers of specimens in the orders: Coleoptera, Diptera, Hemiptera, Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera, with smaller selections in most other orders. 

In 1969, over 5000 predominantly Australian types were transferred to the Australian National Insect Collection in Canberra as a "permanent loan". At present, around 580 types remain in the entomology collection, though additional types are often discovered as collection work continues.

Selected associated Literature

Two preserved fish on a white backgroundScomberoides toloo

The fish collection includes over 2200 lots (individuals or jars of individuals) of alcohol, mounted and skeletal specimens. It formed the foundation of Sir William John Macleay’s catalogue of Australian fishes (1881,1884), as well as Alleyne and Macleay’s (1877) report on specimens from Queensland, the Torres Straits and southern New Guinea collected during the Chevert Expedition, and Macleay’s works on New Guinea fishes collected by Andrew Goldie.

Peter Stanbury (1969) published a list of type specimens known at that time, these were subsequently transferred to the Australian Museum on "permanent loan" and allocated additional Australian Museum registration numbers. Ongoing research has led to the rediscovery of lost Sir William fish types in the Macleay Museum, as well as those of some species described by his colleagues, including Count F. de Castelnau and J.D. Ogilby.


Platypus skeleton on displayOrnithorhynchus anatinus [platypus skeleton]

Marsupials from Australia and New Guinea dominate the mammal collection, with the majority collected before 1885.

Seeking to make the collection purposeful for University teaching, William John Macleay also made extensive purchases of mammals from USA-based dealers and through chance acquisitions from visiting collectors.

There are three kinds of preparations of the mammals: research skins, taxidermy mounts and skeletal (parts and wholes). A smaller number are stored in water-ethanol solutions.

Cormorant skeleton on displayCormorant skeleton

There are 8000 bird skins, taxidermy mounts and skeletons, 1200 eggs and 100 nests in this collection.

The majority were acquired during WJ Macleay's lifetime from collection expeditions (particularly the Chevert), purchases from dealers and acquisitions via his networks of exchange.

The following regions' bird populations are well-represented: West Africa, Northern, Central and South America, Aotearoa – New Zealand, Australia, India, Indonesian archipelago and New Guinea. Smaller numbers of specimens document bird species from Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Preserved turtleEretmochelys imbricata, photograph: Michael Myers

The herpetological collections consist of amphibians, snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodiles collected between 1870 and 1940. The majority of these collections are preserved in ethanol.

Preserved molluscaHelix (parayphanta) atramentaria, photograph: Michael Myers

Conchology (shells) was the principal interest in this animal group in the 19th century. Because of this, few of the animals living within the shell are preserved in the collection.

WJ Macleay's fellow Sydney-based collectors, John Brazier and James Cox, swapped, traded and sold parts of their collections internationally. Some of the Macleay material came from these conchologists, but are yet to be identified.

There are 9000 lots (individuals or groups of individuals); of which around 3000 represent land-based animals (land-snails).

For fossil shells see the fossil collection.

Preserved crabZosimus aeneus [poisonous crab]

The Macleay Collections hold over 3500 crustacean specimens, largely collected between 1800 and 1900, from Australia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, and the Carribean.

Selected associated literature

Over 1000 fossils are held in the collection largely through three distinct acquisitions:

  • plant fossils collected by Julian Tennison-Woods (1832-1889)
  • Eocene molluscs from Tuscany and the Paris Basin, probably acquired by WS Macleay
  • bird fossils, including many parts of Pachyornis (moa) species some of which came from Canterbury Museum curator, Johann von Haast (1822-1887).

Preserved pseudopterogorgia spPseudopterogorgia sp with ophiuroids

The Macleay Collections maintain collections of late 19th-century marine invertebrates; including sponges, echinoderms, and polychaete worms.

A small number of sponge type specimens are held, relating to the work of NN Miklouho-Maclay and Robert von Lendenfeld.

I shall take every opportunity of enlarging the Collection in all branches of Natural History, but I shall chiefly strive for excellence as a Museum of Animalia invertebrata.
Sir William John Macleay, 23 January 1874