Okapi, Okapia johnstoni

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Roz Wade, Education Officer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

The Museum of Zoology is a teaching museum, set up to teach our undergraduate students about animal form, diversity and evolution. One of the things visitors remember and comment on is the number of skeletons – in the lower gallery, our mammal displays are predominantly skeletons rather than stuffed animals. You can see so much from a skeleton about how the animals are put together and function that you can’t get from looking at a stuffed and mounted skin. And also there is something rather spooky about a room full of taxidermy that for some reason doesn’t apply to skeletons. It is not totally devoid of skins though, and the largest and probably best loved of them is the Okapi.

The Okapi is a fairly large herbivore related to giraffes. It is graceful in its shape, with elegant limbs and delicate features (apart from the rather large ears!). Its coat is a lovely warm brown colour with beautiful cream stripes on its legs. They live in the dense, humid forests of the Democratic Republic of Congo where, if seen (unlikely as they are pretty elusive creatures) they are either alone or in pairs or small family groups. Okapis are very secretive and only became known to science around 1900 – quite astonishing for such a large animal. Our specimen was registered in the Museum in 1912, so a pretty early example to be brought back to the UK. It was stuffed at the renowned London taxidermy firm Rowland Ward Ltd. But lately she has been looking a little tired – she has received so much love from visitors stroking her she has a bald patch on the side of her body. With the redevelopment we are now having to rethink where to display this interesting animal. We know how popular the Okapi is, and rightly so, but have to preserve it for the future. This is just one of the many things we have to think about with the redevelopment project. Getting the balance right between access to our fabulous collections and protecting them for future generations is so important to us. Watch this space for more stories we are finding about our specimens as we go through these exciting times!

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