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Lions, and Leopards, and Bears – OH MY!

Posted on January 16, 2013 by in The OFI Blog


With roughly 590,000 voucher specimens, the NMNH Division of Mammals maintains, by far, the world’s largest – nearly twice the size of the next largest – and one of the most important collections of mammals. The standard preparation is the skin and skull of which there are over 350,000 specimens. Other major holdings include 28,000 skeletons, 100,000 fluid-stored specimens, and 3,000 tanned skins. The collection includes 3,208 primary type specimens and many historically important specimens. The collections include several special subsets, among these are mammalian brains (857 specimens), male genitalia (1,700 specimens), fluid-preserved hearts (373), cleared-and-stained specimens (400) as well as karyotype slides (2,000), hair slides and bacula. Frozen tissue samples of vouchered specimens number about 4,000 with an additional 3,000 samples without vouchers.

The oldest specimens originated from the activities of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, dating from 1838-1842, and the personal collection of Spencer Fullerton Baird. A significant portion of the collection’s North American specimens resulted from the Biological Survey program, initiated by C. Hart Merriam and conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in the 1890s-1930s. The Mammal collection includes specimens from William L. Abbott who made large collections of mammals from Central and Southeast Asia. The Smithsonian African Expedition acquired many specimens from east Africa (1909-1911), some of which were collected by former President Theodore Roosevelt, and during the 1960s, large field programs surveying mammals as disease vectors, such as the Smithsonian Venezuelan Project and the African Mammal Project, added more than 100,000 specimens to the collection.

What did the interns have to say after the tour?

The mammals tour was very informative and covered a wide variety of subjects including taxonomy, conservation, and methods of studying captured mammals. Looking at the anatomy of the preserved species really illustrated the concept of “form fits function“.  – – Jacob Miller (Virginia Polytechnic Institute)


 The mammal tour turned out to be super cool and was definitely worth my lunch hour spent! The display was very well set up and the tour guide was super approachable. You know a tour is well-done when it inspires you to read lots of Wikipedia articles to satiate new curiosities! We were introduced to a historically significant gorilla skull that was once affiliated with the work of Diane Fossey- whom I thoroughly researched on wiki after the tour. Next step? Watch “Gorillas in the Mist.” I’m also inspired to learn more about vampire bats and their interaction with humans and their livestock…I never even knew such controversy existed. These kinds of tours make me so grateful to be working here at the Smithsonian’s NMNH. Thanks for the opportunity!”  – – Laura Brodbeck (Queen’s University)


 The tour of mammals was intriguing. I assumed the mammals were preserved for study in and of themselves. I never knew there were so many possibly avenues of study, from disease control and prevention to environmental degradation, that can be learned from the preserved mammal collection. I really never thought about all the practical applications of the mammal and preserved animal collections.”  – – Samantha Linford (University of California, Davis)

I really enjoyed getting a glimpse into NMNH’s mammal collections, and learning more about the great amount of work undertaken to preserve the collections for future research and education.  A few things I learned on the Mammals Special Collection tour: Vampire bats possess extremely sharp teeth that can bite through even the thickest leather gloves. Very closely related mammals can sometimes appear incredibly different, while some mammals that look alike aren’t closely related to each other at all. One kind of bat cleverly uses its calcars as a little bag to hold fish for eating. Some flying squirrels look big enough to eat little dogs for breakfast, while other flying squirrels could fit in the palm of your hand. Seal fur is the softest material known to man. – – Kathryn Hirabayashi (Oberlin College).