The annelid collection originated from numerous collecting trips and expeditions organized and conducted by the early custodians of the museum. Furthermore, there was a busy exchange of specimens especially from exotic regions between colleagues or custodians from different institutions, which was occasionally supplemented by specimens acquired from professional collectors such as distributed by the Godeffroy-collection. Annelids or segmented worms were collected as part of the “Vermes” collection at most museums, thus joining the ranks of many other (mostly worm-shaped) invertebrate groups. A person of special importance during these early days of annelid research in Hamburg is Johann Wilhelm Michaelsen (1860 – 1937), who supported his friend Alfred Lothar Wegener’s 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 both fossils and recent worms for his studies, thereby compiling the impressive collection of holotypes for more than 1.400 species, which constitute the core of the present annelid collection, contributing to its fame. Together with colleagues such as Ernst Heinrich Ehlers (1835 – 1925) and Hermann Augener (1872 – 1938) he also added a large number of specimens to the polychaete collection – most of those originated from early sampling trips, which have been organized by Hamburg or Germany and explored the tropics and the polar regions.
None of these founding members of the annelid collection witnessed the probably greatest misfortune in the history of the Zoological Museum Hamburg – its complete destruction following bombing attacks during the second World War in 1943. Due to incredible efforts of the museum personal, most of the specimens preserved in alcohol could be saved by being stored in unused metro-tunnels and -chambers, thus remaining mostly unharmed to this day. However, these suboptimal storage conditions took their toll on the paper catalogues and jar-labels, which are now being meticulously restored for research and posterity.
Things did not calm down for the annelids of Hamburg after the war: due to spatial constrictions in the new storage building as well as the custodian’s main research interests the annelids were split between two collections: Small marine groups such as sipuncs and echiurans as well as terrestric/limnic groups such as oligochaetes (earthworms and their relatives) and hirudineans (leeches) became part of the collection “Invertebrates I” (Wirbellose I), thus joining the ranks (and shelves) of cnidarians (jellyfisch, polyps), tapeworms, roundworms, sea urchins, starfish, sea cucumbers, onychophorans, water bears, …). The large group of marine polychaetes joined forces with crustaceans and thus formed the collection “Invertebrates II” (Wirbellose II). Had the early years of annelid research been dominated by oligochaete studies (especially earthworm biogeography), it was now the time to explore the oceans in the polar regions, as well as the deep sea. Gesa Hartmann-Schröder maintained and propagated the collection “Invertebrates II” after the war for many years together with her husband Gerhard Hartmann, is still known as one of the most industrious annelid taxonomists: She described more than 500 species, many of which are still valid. The majority of the type material for these species is still kept in the collection room at the Zoological Museum of the Centre of Natural History Hamburg. Besides her great importance to taxonomy and research, Gesa Hartmann-Schröder and her colleagues around the world also strengthened the standing of women in research, especially their role as independent scientists. Gesa Hartmann-Schröder was succeeded at the Zoological Museum in Hamburg by Angelika Brandt, who in her own right organized and conducted numerous expeditions to the Antarctic and to the middle of the ocean, sampling animals from the deep sea. Between the two of them, they managed to more than double the number of specimens in the collection, attesting to its importance and value in terms of type material and biogeographical presentation.
Despite their long research history, annelids and the individual groups’ relationships within the phylum are still the focus of ongoing research projects, aiming to unravel how different body plans are related to each other. It was thereby discovered in recent years that oligochaetes, hirudineans and some other smaller groups originated within polychaetes. Subsequently, the two previously separated collection-parts have been reunited at the museum in Hamburg in November 2019, forming the custody Annelida.