Dinosaur Gallery, MfN, featuring Giraffatitan,Apatosaurus, Dicraeosaurus and Archaeopteryx
One of the many benefits of studying animal osteology is that I get to travel to some pretty awesome places. Okay, so not fieldwork in the Bahamas or South Africa, like some of my colleagues in the lab, but museums can be awesome too! One of the largest collections in western Europe can be found at the world famous Museum für Naturkunde (MfN) in Berlin, Germany. The MfN houses, among other things, the tallest mounted skeleton in the world - a Giraffatitan brancai - along with the famous 'Berlin Specimen' of the ancient bird Archaeopteryx. Less well known are the extensive mammalian, avian and alcohol-preserved collections. For my part, the fossil and extant mammal collections house a broad range of material from both living and extinct perissodactyls.
For my first visit to the collections I was accompanied by my girlfriend and on-the-day assistant Eleni, who made my job of finding and identifying which spevimens were good to use SOOO much easier! Our supervisor for the extant equids and tapirs collection was Mrs. Christiane Funk - collections manager for mammals at the MfN. With the combined forces of the three of us, we managed to log all the tapir and equid specimens in less than four hours...which by my standards is pretty speedy! Subsequent visits involved some pretty heavy lifting of suitcases full of bones, sweaty-nerding out in the fossil collections and several traipses through the Zoological Gardens, all of which were very enjoyable! I have also become intimately familiar with the new tram system, watched the road outside the museum take on a new shape every time I visit, and on the odd occasion lost my passport, hurling my holiday plans into turmoil! (I have a new one now, thankfully!)
My interest in the MfN collections are three-fold: first and foremost, I hope to use the described tapir specimens from the mammal collection to supplement the specimens we have already scanned from institutions in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Austria. The acquisition of multiple specimens is essential to attain and account for as much variation in the bones as possible.
Secondly, I plan to use three unidentified tapir specimens to test whether geometric morphometrics can be used to distinguish tapir specimens at the species level. This project is in combination with colleagues at the KMDA, Antwerp, who will be testing the specimens using molecular markers from bone cores. The results of this study will hopefully enable museum collections to utilise a 'morphometric toolbox' for the positive identification of tapir specimens with no species denomination or locality information - essentially, making a useless specimen useful without invasive genetic sampling!
Comparison of Black Rhinoceros and the Giant Rhino Elasmotherium
fischeri (based on MB.Ma. 26313). The Giant Rhino made a screen
appearance on Nigel Marven's Prehistoric Park on ITV (bottom right)
Lastly, we currently have a masters project looking into the morphological variation of the third metacarpal - an exemplar bone for many analyses on equids. To place this variation in a phylogenetic context, specimens from the fossil mammal collection have been loaned to us by Collections Manager Mr. Thomas Schossleitner and renowned vertebrate palaeontologist Dr. Oliver Rahut. Specimens have included equids from the Plio/Pleistocene, tridactyl hipparionine equids from the Pliocene, and a wide range of rhinoceroses ranging from the Miocene to the late Pleistocene (including the Giant Rhinoceros, Elasmotherium). To compliment these crown groups, we have also been granted specimens of brontotheres/titanotheres and the small, enigmatic palaeotheres; both these groups come from the Eocene epoch, over 40 million years ago!
|Dice playing in a zebra's graveyard...|
|...and gazing at a long lost cousin|
All in all, my yo-yo-ing to Berlin and back has been very fulfilling. Aside from learning how painful Eurolines coaches can be, I have had the opportunity to visit behind the scenes of one of the greatest museums of natural history in Europe, possibly the world. I would like to extend my thanks to all the staff at the Museum für Naturkunde, especially Christiane and Thomas, for their patient hospitality and for allowing me access to specimens that will prove invaluable to the continuation of my project. I always enjoy visiting, and I look forward to doing so again in the near future.
Thanks to all for reading - stay tuned for my next research adventure! Ciao for now and guten tag!