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!


Giraffe Skull, Giraffa camelopardalis

Giraffe Skull, Giraffa camelopardalis

Dr Phil Cox, former PhD student at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

No visitor to the Museum can fail to notice the mounted giraffe skeleton on display in the lower gallery, towering over the other mammal skeletons. It is great to be able to stand next to the giraffe to get a feel for just how tall these creatures actually are. However, because of its height, it is difficult to get a good look at the giraffe’s skull. Therefore, the specimen I have chosen is not the mounted skeleton, but the adult male giraffe skull in the nearby cabinet that is conveniently displayed at (human) eye-level. From this perspective it is much easier to see just how large and impressive the giraffe skull is. I can also confirm that it is extremely heavy. As part of my PhD, which was an investigation into the bone structure in and around the eye-socket in mammals, I wanted to examine and measure the giraffe skull. It required two people (Ray Symonds, the collections manager at the time, and myself) to lift it off the shelf and on to a nearby table. It is the weight of the skull and the length of the neck that enable male giraffes (bulls) to use their heads as club-like weapons during duels known as ‘necking’. Such contests occur between male giraffes in order to establish dominance, and involve the bulls swinging their necks and trying to hit each other with their ossicones (the horn-like structures on the top of the head). Having experienced the weight of this specimen first-hand, I was not surprised to find out that a well-placed blow from the head can knock a fully-grown bull completely off-balance.

Morganucodon – lower jaw of an early mammal

Eo D61 Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) watsoni 

From Pontalun quarry, near Bridgend, Glamorgan.

© Pam Gill

Photograph of specimen Eo D61 Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) watsoni
© Dr Pam Gill

Reconstruction of the lower jaw of Morganucodon.  © Pam Gill

Reconstruction of the lower jaw of Morganucodon.
© Pam Gill

Dr Pam Gill of the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, writes:

This specimen is part of the lower jaw of one of our very first mammal ancestors. It lived in the Early Jurassic, 200 million years ago, at the same time as some of the earliest dinosaurs.  Morganucodon (=Eozostrodon) was a tiny shrew sized mammal and it lived on a small limestone island in what is now Glamorgan, along with another early mammal Kuehneotherium. Hundreds of bones of these creatures accumulated in small subsurface caves, and have now been exposed by quarrying.

I have chosen this specimen of Morganucodon as it is one that was used to make a complete reconstruction of the lower jaw. Because the bones were broken when they were swept into the caves and there are no complete jaws preserved. This fossil is only a few millimeters long and is of the back end of the jaw, showing the strong jaw joint and the final molar tooth.

Eo D61 and other specimens were taken to the synchrotron in Zurich for high resolution CT scanning to make 3D reconstructions.  Three specimens were digitally “stitched together” (see the image above) to make a complete jaw, with Eo D61 as the posterior end. Biomechanical models were made from the reconstructions of Morganucodon and Kuehneotherium and showed that Morganucodon could eat hard food such as beetles, but Kuehneotherium could only slice up soft food like moths. So even the very first mammals had evolved to eat different diets so that they were not competing for food.

Giant Golden Mole, Chrysospalax trevelyani

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Nick Crumpton, a PhD student at the museum, writes of one of his favourite animals, the Giant Golden Mole:

Let’s imagine you’re walking through the grasslands of South Africa and have decided to find some shade under the trees of a nearby forest. Although you might assume that the most interesting animals could be slithering through the trees above you or silently evading you behind the tree trunks, it’s the ground beneath your feet that I want you to concentrate on. Perhaps, after a while, you’re luck and see the leaf litter tremble a little. Then, suddenly, a shiny, furry, eyeless face pops up. Say hello to Chrysospalax trevelyani, the Giant Golden Mole.

But why is a mole so interesting? Well, because it’s not really a mole at all. Although scientists thought for years that golden moles were closely related to talpids (the group that includes true moles like those you find in the UK), shrews and hedgehogs, recent genetic and anatomical analyses have shown without a shadow of a doubt that Chrysospalax trevelyani and the 20 other species of golden mole share a more recent common ancestor with aardvarks, manatees, sengis and elephants than with any other type of mammal.

This is a striking case of convergent evolution where two types of animals that aren’t closely related have found themselves evolving similar adaptations. When we see how alike the lifestyles of golden moles and talpids are, this makes sense. If an animal lives underground, natural selection favours certain ‘traits’: a streamlined shape to ease moving through sand or soil; very large hands to push sediment out of the way; and strong arms with which to propel itself. We also see a decrease in the size of their eyes as vision is less important underground.

When you get down to the precise anatomical differences between talpids and golden moles, you do start to see differences. For instance, the golden moles’ eyes are completely covered by skin and fur whereas some true moles still open their relatively ‘normal’ – albeit very small – eyes. They also have different digging techniques.

Both have evolved aspects of their bodies that the other would love. For instance, talpids are the only mammals on Earth to have their noses covered in special touch-sensitive pads called Eimer’s organs, which enable them to feel the world around them better than we can with our fingertips. But some golden moles have incredibly large ear bones making them far more sensitive to vibrations as they move through the earth listening out for prey. Very recent research has also shown that golden moles have evolved a coat of hairs that lest sand and soil run straight off them, making them silky smooth so they can tunnel through the ground incredibly easily. A rather accidental byproduct of this special coat means that it also makes the mammals iridescent. But, as they’re completely blind, they can’t appreciate how attractive it makes them look.

Although little is known about golden moles in comparison to their Northern hemisphere counterparts, we do know that their habitats are fragmenting, catrs and dogs are adept at catching them and that 12 species of golden moles across Africa are now classified from ‘vulnerable’ ‘critically endangered’ by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So the next time you come to the museum, point out the Giant Golden Mole and explain to your friends how it evolved from the same ancestor as elephants did. Perhaps if people know more about these shiny, super-hearing, insect-munching tunnelers they might live a little more securely in their subterranean homes.

West African Otter-Shrew, Potamogale velox

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

Because I have been in the Museum for more than 40 years, many of the specimens, both those on display and those behind the scenes in the stores,  have close associations with particular people. Some of those people were staff and students, some were visitors. Most of the associations are pleasant ones, only a few are notable for opposite reasons. So it is very difficult to choose just one specimen, but I have chosen the now slightly faded specimen of the West African otter-shrew, Potamogale velox, in one of the cases in the Demonstration Area in the Lower Gallery. That specimen was brought to us, freshly dead, in the Ituri Forest in Zaire early one misty December morning in 1974. I managed to get a blood sample from it, and getting that sample was one of the main reasons that the then Director of the Museum, Ken Joysey, and I were in Zaire. Yes, of course, we would have preferred a living animal, but a local hunter caught it quite by chance, and was told we had an interest. Ken died in 2012, and the otter-shrew recalls for me some of the more hilarious moments on what was otherwise a rather hair-raising expedition. Ken suggested that our arriving in the middle of the Congo and looking for an otter-shrew without speaking the local language was a bit like some one from the Congo landing at Heathrow and looking for an otter, without speaking English. But we did get the sample.

Narwhal, Monodon monoceros


Dr Chloe Cyrus-Kent, a past PhD student of the museum, writes:

I love the museum’s male narwhal skeleton! All the cetacean skeletons are fabulous, but the narwhal is fun in being a ‘mutant’ with two tusks instead of the usual one. Confusing to start with and then when you realise that it’s yet another example of genetic instructions going a bit loopy, rather inspiring. Astonishing that the narwhal seems to be fine with a whole extra tusk to live with!

Indian Elephant, Elephas maximus

Indian Elephant

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Stuart Turner, Museum Assistant, writes about one of the largest specimens in the museum’s stores, pictured here in this archival photograph of the old Museum of Zoology (which was opened in 1865, but replaced by the modern building that now houses the museum in 1965).  The Indian Elephant is the large skeleton on the left, the skeleton on the right belonging to the African Elephant currently on display in the lower gallery.

This Indian Elephant specimen in the Museum was in life a Rogue male elephant which unfortunately had to be destroyed as it was a menace to people in Sri Lanka back in 1881!

The animal was shot by a member of the civil service there and the following is an extract from his notebook: “The Yatiantota Tusker, a notorious and proscribed rogue elephant (bull), that had done much damage to life and property. It was shot 6th February 1881 at Yakkela Kele (“forest of the devil’s stream”), near Malalpola, eight miles from Ruanwela, in the Kegalle district, Western Province, Ceylon.  Height, 9 feet ; tusks 4 feet 11 ½ inches, and 4 feet 10 inches outside curve—weight, 75lbs.”

We only have casts of the 75lbs (34 kg) tusks which were going to be carved out of wood until they decided that moulds made out of plaster of paris would be more accurate likeness. The real tusks did become available in 1904 but the £200 asking price was deemed too expensive at the time!

The elephant came to the Museum of Zoology by way of donation (It was registered in 1882) after being prepared and packed by the taxidermist of the Colombo Museum.

This elephant is still a struggle to handle in death due to its large weight and size (it takes two people just to move its skull) –It would be a terrifying prospect to have the elephant fleshed out and attacking as just the bones alone are an awesome weight.

I had to design, source and put together some new storage racking for the elephant to be housed in, unfortunately the best choice (industrial pallet racking normally used in warehouses) was only available in a garish colour combination of orange and blue which is very different to the beige of the rest of the roller racking! The maximum weight capacity of the racking that I choose for the elephant is actually a bit overkill as I did not want it to fail under load and cause the elephant to go rogue again by falling off the racking and injuring somebody nearby!