The Annelida collection began its development in the 19th century from numerous collecting trips and expeditions organized and conducted by the early custodians of the museum, the active exchange of specimens from around the world between different institutions, and specimens acquired from professional collectors at that time, such as the Godeffroy collection.
Johann Wilhelm Michaelsen (1860 – 1937) was especially important during these early days of annelid research in Hamburg. As curator in Hamburg, Michaelsen supported his friend Alfred Lothar Wegener in developing his theory of plate tectonics with his own studies on biogeography of earthworms and their relatives. He travelled to South America, Africa and Australia to collect fossil and recent worms for his studies. Through his taxonomic work he compiled the globally important collection of holotypes for more than 1400 species, which are the core of the present annelid collection.
Together with colleagues such as Ernst Heinrich Ehlers (1835 – 1925) and Hermann Augener (1872 – 1938), Michaelsen also added many specimens to the polychaete collection through early collecting expeditions to tropical and polar regions, such as the Hamburger Magalhaensische Sammelreise (1892-1893) to Patagonia, the Deutsche Tiefsee-Expedition (1898-1899) in the deep Atlantic, the Deutsche Südpolar-Expedition (1901-1903) to Antarctica, and the Hamburger südwest-australische Forschungsreise (1905) to Western Australia.
None of these founding members of the annelid collection witnessed the greatest misfortune in the history of the Museum of Nature Hamburg: its complete destruction during the bombing attacks in 1943 during the second World War. Thanks to the heroic efforts of the museum personnel, most of the specimens were saved through wartime storage in unused metro tunnels and chambers. While most of the specimens survived unharmed, suboptimal storage conditions took a toll on the paper catalogues and jar labels, which are now being meticulously restored and archived for research and posterity.
After the war, spatial constraints in the new storage building and divergent research interests among the curators led to the division of the Annelida collection into two: the terrestrial and freshwater Oligochaeta and Hirudinea (earthworms, leeches, and their relatives) became part of the “Invertebrates I” collection alongside the unsegmented worms Sipuncula and Echiura (both former phyla now classified as Annelida), as well as cnidarians (jellyfish, corals), tapeworms (Platyhelminthes), roundworms (Nematoda), echinoderms (sea stars and relatives), and others. The large collection of marine Annelida (Polychaeta) were united with Crustacea into the collection “Invertebrates II”.
Gesa Hartmann-Schröder (1931 – 2022) maintained and developed the polychaete collection together with her husband Gerhard Hartmann, who was curator of the “Invertebrates II” collection until the mid-1990s. Together, the pair collected all over the world, with a particular focus on the southern hemisphere. Gesa Hartmann-Schröder currently holds the title of the most prolific polychaete taxonomist of all time, having described more than 500 species, many of which are still valid. Her extensive type collection, still part of the Annelida collections at the Museum of Nature Hamburg, ranks among the largest such collections globally, and a key resource for polychaete taxonomy today. Gesa Hartmann-Schröder’s work strengthened the standing of women as independent researchers. She was succeeded by Angelika Brandt, who led numerous expeditions to Antarctica and the deep sea, strengthening the collection’s representation of these under-sampled areas. These remarkable women nearly doubled the number of specimens in the collection and strengthened its geographic coverage and value.
Today, the collection continues to grow through fieldwork efforts and global collaborations and digitization of the collection is well underway. Major changes to annelid systematics arising from advanced genetic methods over the past 20 years have led to a new understanding of annelid evolution, and many exciting research questions remain open. As a consequence of this updated classification, the Annelida collection now unites the groups Oligochaeta, Hirudinea, Polychaeta, Echiura, and Sipuncula.