Examples of evolution at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

When I visited Harvard last week, I had to visit the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ), where I did my Ph.D. work. It so happened that the exhibits—the displays of skeletons and stuffed animals that typify a nineteenth-century zoology museum—lay between my office and the soda machine, so I had lots of opportunity to look at the displays.  Here are a couple of things I photographed last week that bear on evolution:

These are specimens of the European hedgehog (Click to enlarge).  It is in the order Erinaceomorpha, which includes Old World hedgehogs, moonrats, and gymnures. I do deplore the mass killing that fuels such displays: did they really need more than one? And did they think about the children? (They have baby lions in the displays that were also shot.)

This is the greater hedgehog tenrec from Madagascar. It is in the order Afrosoricida, along with tenrecs and golden moles.  Although this and the hedgehog above were once thought to be close relatives, they are not closely related at all.  In fact, as one commenter noted below the European hedgehog is more closely related to humans than to the greater hedgehog tenrec. Their resemblance of the two “hedgehogs” is in fact a remarkable example of convergent evolution, in which divergent ancestors evolve into very similar forms. Look at the remarkable resemblance!

Here’s a diagram from a PNAS paper showing their relationship: their ancestors diverged about 105 million years ago (just look for the common ancestor of the hedgehog [top] and the golden mole in the following phylogeny):


Finally, here I am pointing out the vestigial hindlimbs of a sperm whale suspended from the ceiling of the Museum.  That was part of the evidence I gave in my lecture two days later.  These bones are not connected to the rest of the skeleton, but have to be mounted by suspending them with wires.  They serve no structural function, but occasionally continue to develop into structures that have discernible leg parts, like the femur, tibia, and tarsus.  These are evidence for evolution: the evolution of whales from a terrestrial four-legged organism, and in whales the ancestral legs remain as tiny vestiges embedded in the muscle.

BTW, congratulations to the population geneticist Joe Felsenstein, who just turned 70 yesterday.  Felsenstein, who has made substantial contributions to theoretical evolutionary genetics, has done the same for systematics in recent years.  Joe studied at the University of Chicago under my advisor Dick Lewontin, and one of his claims to fame was being a radical during the SDS troubles in the sixties. I believe Joe sustained some injuries in the SDS-police fracas by being hit in the head with a brick.

h/t: Andrew Berry

28 thoughts on “Examples of evolution at Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology

  1. How is it possible that an evolutionary biologist does not understand why a research museum “needs more than one,” and equates the acquisition of museum specimens with “mass killing”?

    1. That’s what I was going to ask.
      Surely Dr. Coyne knows that the primary purpose of the MCZ is not to mount public displays, and that these hedgehogs were probably not collected for such purpose? (Judging from the specimen numbers there’s another from this series in a drawer back in the collections.)

      (Also I can”t help poionting out that “baby lions” are not “children,” by definition.)

    2. I don’t think that you need more than one specimen for an exhibit, though you need more than one for taxonomic purposes. And yes, I think that some specimens are collected for exhibit, not for taxonomy; otherwise they wouldn’t be stuffed and mounted.

      The “children” comment was a joke, obviously, as in “Think of the children.”

      And yes, I do believe that museum collectors in the past have committed overkill in trying to acquire specimens. So, Mr. Greene, despite your implication that I am ignorant, I have thought about these matters.

      1. Well, as a fellow evolutionary biologist well aware of your erudition no such implication (that you’re ignorant) was intended–what surprised me, other than the defensive response, was your sweeping generalization and hyperbole, given the central role of museum specimens in the past and future of evolutionary and conservation biology (e.g., Mayr described more new bird taxa than any other ornithologist, archived museum specimens are helping solve the riddle of how a chytrid fungus is affecting frogs, on and on).

        1. For the record, ‘Mr. Greene’ is a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cornell and a former curator at UC Bekeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology.

          I apologize for misreading the ambiguous phrasing of the joke.

      2. Don’t forget that museums don’t just get material from direct collection of living animals — they also scrounge already dead animal specimens relentlessly, especially from zoos and other captive sources as well and road kill and other “natural” sources of mortality. Animals die in captivity and in the wild by the millions and curators manage to salvage a few of those for study and display.

  2. I have a pretty stupid question: according to the diagram above, does that mean that hedgehogs and humans are more closely related than the 2 animals in the pictures? That’s just awesome (in the real sense) to me!

  3. Thanks, Jerry. I did get hit by a brick, but that was not during troubles on campus. It had to do with me and my friends mishandling an interaction with a local kid from the nearby neighborhoods. The kid won.

    The troubles on campus that I was involved in mostly involved lots of irritated (and irritating) words.

  4. ‘I do deplore the mass killing that fuels such displays: did they really need more than one?’

    As a mature adult, I think Biology is the most important science. However, as a young person, I hated it – precisely because of its gratuitous killing.

    Until Biology works out a way of conducting research that is humane, sensitive young people will be turned off.

  5. whale-related fact I learned from the Dawkins-Krauss conversation in Australia:

    hippos are closer ancestors to whales than to pigs.

  6. Nice pics! I have Felsenstein’s “Infering Phylogenies” on my desk right now, reading it as background for a class!

  7. They serve no structural function, but occasionally continue to develop into structures that have discernible leg parts, like the femur, tibia, and tarsus. These are evidence for evolution:..

    Good point.

    Whales and dolphins are sometimes found with back legs. This is an atavism, a throwback to their distant ancestors and slightly different than a vestigal part.

    It’s seen in humans as well. Occasionally humans are born with…tails. and covered with fir. And of course, the late fetus goes through a stage of being covered with fur that is shed before birth, an in utero atavism.

    I forget the creationist excuse for these. Probably blame it all on satan or god, the all purpose explanation for anything unknown or they don’t want to know.

    1. I should think that the cetacean example is the number one cause of religioso backward double somersaults.

    2. I thought it was the Canadians who are covered with fir? Mammals tend covered with fur, (or hair, wool, whatever)… 😉

  8. There’s a great, if incredibly patronising, interview with a gent described as an “Irish tinker” in the BBC archives from the 1950s. In a crisp, received pronunciation, perfect BBC accent the interviewer tells Mr Kennedy there is one burning question on his listeners lips, and it is, “have you ever eaten hedgehog?”. Kennedy affirms he has. “And what was it like?”, asks the breathless interviewer. “Well,” says Kennedy, “It’s a little bit like chicken…and a little bit like cat.”

  9. Those examples of evolution from Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology are in fact on display in the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the public face of the MCZ. The public museum, http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu, is open to the public daily from 9-5 pm, and displays those and some 500 other mammals. You can also see a new exhibition on Evolution which displays the model of the Tiktaalik and other animals illustrating evolutionary transitions.

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