St. Petersburg: The Zoological Museum

August 15, 2011 • 5:53 am

Very close to the State University of Saint Petersburg, where we had our meetings a while back, stands the Zoological Museum, or, to use its full name, the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences.   Entry is a bit pricey, but we were treated to a free visit by the wonderful organizers of our conference.  I was keen to visit because the museum has the only stuffed and mounted adult mammoth in the world, and, according to Wikipedia, it’s also one of the ten largest natural history museums in the world.  The museum’s own site notes that it has over 17 million specimens, of which about half a million are on display.  And yes, the museum is huge, and there’s a lot to see.

The museum was begun from specimens collected by Peter the Great, and its formal inception was in 1724.  As you enter the museum, you see on your left three of Peter’s own specimens, and I’m told that these represent his pets—two dogs and a horse—stuffed and mounted.  Those of you who can read Russian might tell us whether the sign verifies this (click once to make large, twice to make real large).  The taxidermy leaves a bit to be desired:

A bit further in are three cetacean skeletons hanging from the ceiling (I don’t have notes on what they are), and each has one of my favorite bits of evidence for evolution: the vestigial pelvis.  I managed to get all three vestigial pelvises (pelvi?) in one shot, so here is ineluctable proof of common descent:

Much of the collection consists of stuffed and mounted animals. It was, of course, the custom in 17th and 18th century zoology to simply kill everything and bring it back from foreign places.  What is striking about the Russian museum is how many things were killed en masse and exhibited together, including bunches of penguins and baby felids! Fortunately, sensibilities have changed.

I transliterated the animal below from Cyrillic as “leopard” (actually “gepard”), but the species name on the case and the animals’ appearance show clearly that these are cheetahs.  I guess the Russian word for “cheetah” is “gepard.”

Kitteh carnage is rampant, and sad:

Of course the highlight of the museum is its unique collection of mammoth fossils and subfossils. (“Subfossils” are old remains of animals and plants that have not been fully fossilized—that is, in which the hard parts haven’t yet been replaced by minerals.These contain organic material.) Several of the mammoths were famously preserved with flesh and hair largely intact because their remains were entombed in permafrost.  And it is a true fact that mammoth flesh was served as canapés at a dinner at the Explorer’s Club in New York in 1951 (see footnote 3 in WEIT).

This is the world’s only stuffed and mounted adult mammoth—mounted in the position in which it was found:

There were several species of mammoth, all in the genus MammuthusWikipedia gives the animal’s etymology: “The word mammoth comes from the Russian мамонт (mamont),  probably in turn from the Vogul (Mansi) language, mang ont, meaning ‘earth horn.'”  The first remains date to about 5 million years ago, and mammoths lived right into historical times: a population in Alaska went extinct only about 4,000 years ago. The animals are notable for their dense coat of fur (DNA sequencing of “color” genes has suggested that some of them may have been blonde, since they carried mutant genes identical to those causing light hair in humans and other mammals). The reasons for their extinction is unclear: it may have been hunting by humans, climatic change, disease, or, more likely, a combination of several factors.

My Russian colleagues pointed out with much merriment that the mammoth’s penis was also preserved, and a large one it is, too! It’s the big flat thing sticking out below:

There are several well-preserved baby mammoths as well, one completely covered with hair:

The tusks of the mammoth skeleton were so long that I couldn’t get them in the picture:

Mammoth teeth are amazing, clearly adapted for a herbivorous diet, and one that required grinding. These guys ate more than just leaves: probably grass, which is a tough thing to eat since it contains a lot of silicon that wears down teeth.

The Illinois State Museum says this about the teeth (mammoth fossils are also found in the midwestern U.S.):

The teeth of mammoths are quite distinctive. They are composed of a set of compressed enamel plates that are held together with cementum. These cemented plates make a very tall, strong, and wear-resistant tooth. After a tooth erupts from the gum cavity, the mammoth uses it in grinding coarse vegetation like grass. This use causes the tooth to develop a flat top with low enamel ridges where the plates have been worn.

The tall structure of these hypsodont (shallow-rooted) teeth make them very resistant to wear. [JAC: horse teeth are also hypsodont.] This is important because mammoths are thought to have been primarily grass-eaters. Grass is a very hard material to eat. It has small pieces of silica (a glass-like substance) in its leaves. These pieces of silica act like sandpaper grit and would wear away a less resistant tooth very quickly.

If you’re feeling flush, you can buy woolly mammoth teeth (and other remains) here.

The museum also has the preserved head of a woolly rhinoceros (Coelodonta antiquitatis), another hairy Eurasian species that went extinct in historical times, in this case about ten thousand years ago:

And, just to bring us back to living species, here’s a photograph of a hooded crow (Corvus cornix) that I took at the Peterhof.  In central Europe they form a hybrid zone with the carrion crow (Corvus corone), whose range is in the more western parts of Europe. I remember when the two species were considered just two “races” (or “subspecies”) of a single species, but that’s changed in the last few decades.

What a lovely bird this is! (I know it’s a common bird to many Europeans, but it’s not a sight I’m used to):

29 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: The Zoological Museum

  1. Dr. Coyne,

    Lovely set of photos.

    Thank you so much for taking the trouble to share them with us.

    And thank you for the trouble you take to give us WEIT – a treat.

      1. …and “Gepard” in German, and “guepardo” in Spanish. I have to admit, though, that “cheetah” has a nice ring to it…

          1. Cheetah comes from Sanskrit. Recall that it was widely used as a hunting animal in India & Persia until recent times. For gepard, the OED says it comes from leopard “< French guepard (Buffon); according to Hatzfeld & Darmesteter a corruption of English leopard". Sometimes the English royal coat of arms has been said to depict leopards rather than lions – the explanation of the heraldry is here –

  2. Interestingly enough, the Spanish word for Cheetah is “Guepardo”. The word for Leopard is “Leopardo”.

  3. The text above the horse and the dogs says, “Animals belonging to Peter I”. Below the top-right dog, it says, “Smooth fox terrier called Lizetta”. Under the horse it says, “Horse known as Lizetta, who served Peter I at the time of the battle of Poltava”. Beneath the other dog, it says, “Dog of the breed Bullenbeisser, called Tiran”.

    Don’t ask me why he chose the same name for his terrier and his horse.

  4. Now all I can think about is all those poor baby penguins*. 🙁 I get the same feeling when wandering through the Field Museum. Wonderful photos, though, and no doubt an educational experience. I didn’t know that Illinois had a state museum.

    *And Catherine the Great. Thanks a whole bunch, Reginald…

  5. Half a million specimens on display? That hardly sounds possible. I can almost imagine 500 specimens in a room, but I can’t imagine 1000 rooms. Perhaps a Volvox collection is included in the number?

    I hadn’t known about the woolly rhinoceros. If yaks were extinct, would we call them woolly cows?

  6. RE: Mass killings. The Russians were not remarkable in this regard.

    Read a history of Teddy Roosevelt some day. His hunting trips out west were legendary for the sheer volume of stuff shot.

    His advocacy of conservation of wild areas was a much for providing a haven for things that he could later shoot as it was for his appreciation of the natural beauty of the areas in question.

    1. Sounds like Ted Nugent’s hunting videos, which I have heard characterized as “whack ’em and stack ’em.”

      1. I once pressed a good ol’ boy middle schooler decked out in his fatigues to say which hunter had to be more skillful – and thereby reap more of “the thrill of the hunt” – the hunter with the rifle and scope or the one with the spear, bow & arrow, and/or bolo. He had to admit that it was the latter, but then fell back on that old canard, “Why do you care?”

    2. “Read a history of Teddy Roosevelt some day. His hunting trips out west were legendary for the sheer volume of stuff shot.”

      Including the baby bear whose replicas bear his name.

  7. “I transliterated the animal below from Cyrillic as “leopard” (actually “gepard”), but the species name on the case and the animals’ appearance show clearly that these are cheetahs. I guess the Russian word for “cheetah” is “gepard.””

    In French the word is “guépard”. The Russian word might have been borrowed from the French language as in past centuries many Russians could speak impeccable French. The French word is itself adapted from the Italian “gatto-pardo” meaning “chat-léopard” in French. The English meaning being “Leopard-cat”.

  8. First photo(from top to bottom):

    Pets owned by Peter The Great

    1) Smooth Fox Terrier, nickname Lisetta.

    2) Horse, nickname Lisetta, served to Peter The Great during the Battle of Poltava (

    3) German boxer, (in Russia of Peter’s time this breed called быкодав, it can be translated as bull killer) nickname Tyrant.

    One of the first exhibits of Kunstkamera ( 1716 – 1725.

  9. It seems that in Russian cheetahs are called “gepards” the same as in Spanish, where they are called “guepardos.”

  10. I reckon – without evidence other than the present distribution – that these crows speciated in the Ice Ages & that the black Corvus corone spread from Iberia/Italy while the hooded crow C.cornix spread from Asia/Eastern Europe…

  11. All that stuffed death is sickening…

    I’m so glad our attitudes to our fellow beings has mostly changed ~ since we came to realise that they were not ‘put’ here for our use

  12. “Subfossils” are old remains of animals and plants that have not been fully fossilized—that is, in which the hard parts haven’t yet been replaced by minerals.

    Possible controversy here. I’ve never heard the word “subfossil” used that way, though it certainly turns up in a google search. Out of all my paleo reference books, only one mentions the word, saying this: “The term ‘subfossil’ is often applied to archaeological remains where chemical composition is unchanged from that in life…”. (Briggs & Crowther 2001, p. 326) I think we can discount the “archaeological” part, since the quote is from an article on archaeology. Unchanged composition seems the key there. I learned a somewhat different definition in which age, not preservation, is key: subfossils are Holocene and anything older is a fossil regardless of its mode of preservation. And the commonest form of fossil preservation is not replacement but preservation of some portion of the original material. Ancient bone, for example, is seldom replaced but is most often permineralized: minerals filling the pore spaces but leaving the original apatite in place.

    But you might want to ask a few paleontologists what they think.

    Briggs, D. E. G., and P. R. Crowther (eds). 2001. Palaeobiology II. Blackwell, Oxford.

    Invaluable reference for all things paleontological, by the way, however you prefer to spell it.

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