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are old remains of animals and plants that have not been fully fossilized—that is, in which the hard parts haven’t yet been replaced by minerals.These contain organic material.)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 Mammuthus. Wikipedia 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):