As a ZSL fellow, Darwin studied animal behaviour at the Zoo to develop his scientific work.

Darwin's finches 

After returning from his five year expedition aboard the HMS Beagle, Darwin had gathered a great number of natural history specimens, and he sought out the leading naturalists of the time to offer him additional insight. One of the eminent ornithologists of the time was John Gould; an ambitious, and brilliant man, who worked here at ZSL as Curator of Birds. When Darwin gave his bird specimens to Gould to examine, it was Gould who drew attention to the ‘Galapagos finches’, and the variations in their beaks. It was these finches which formed a large basis of Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution; that one species could evolve in to many, to fill a variety of ecological niches. Their beaks were adapted to the type of food they ate. 

London Zoo and Charles Darwin 

Despite Darwin’s brilliant contributions to our understanding of science, he was also the first to admit that he had his weaknesses; one in particular was his spelling of scientific names. Another ornithologist, who offered Darwin some assistance with his spelling, was ZSL’s Secretary Philip Lutley Sclater (Secretary from 1859-1902). In one letter to Sclater, Darwin admits “I have a most unfortunate weakness, though I strive against it, to copy proper names incorrectly". 

Initially, before his voyage aboard the Beagle, Darwin had been elected as a Corresponding Member of ZSL (in 1831); but this was soon amended on his move to London following the voyage. In 1839 Darwin became a Fellow of ZSL, and went on be a member ZSL’s Council from 1839 until 1841, using his time at ZSL London Zoo to study the behaviour of animals and develop his theories. One notable animal from London Zoo that made a strong impression on Darwin was Jenny the orangutan. 

Today we safeguard Darwin’s history at our library, including a first-edition copy of ‘On the Origin of Species’.

Journey through our history

  • The Reptile House at London Zoo in 1928 with formal flower beds along the paths to the entrance.
    Pioneering reptile understanding

    Reptile House history

    The Reptile House was designed by Dr Joan Beauchamp Procter, our first woman curator, and became hailed as one most sophisticated building for animal care and science.

  • Penguins at Lubetkin penguin pool at London Zoo designed by Berthold Lubetkin
    Pioneering Berthold Lubetkin design

    Lubetkin penguin pool

    Our Lubetkin Penguin pool at London Zoo is iconic. The sweeping spiral ramps kick-started a new era for British architecture, and inspired an enduring love of penguins in the British public.

  • The London Zoo aquarium photographed in July 1981
    World's first public aquarium

    The Aquarium

    We were home to the world’s first public aquarium. We popularised the name “Aquarium” and pioneered the first environments to provide the correct living conditions for salt-water animals.

  • Air raid shelter at London Zoo
    How animals were looked after during the war

    The Zoo during World War Two

    War broke out on 3rd September 1939. At 11.00am London Zoo was closed by order of the Government, as were all other public places where people gathered in large numbers.

  • Winnie the bear at London Zoo which inspired Winnie the Pooh
    The real story behind Winnie the Pooh

    Winnie the Pooh origins

    Winnie was one of our most famous residents, a black bear taken in when her mother was killed by a hunter and she has an enduring influence on pop culture today.

  • History of the Zoo