A Backstage Tour at the Natural History Museum in Berlin

As part of a workshop at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin (Wiko), we had the pleasure of being taken on a backstage tour at the Natural History Museum in Berlin. Our private and extremely knowledgeable guide Brandon Kilbourne turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on the evolution of mammals, so we were in for a special treat. This 2.5hr tour provided many wonderful insights into amazing adaptations over millions of years of mammalian evolution, with as cherry on the cake some unique dinosaur skeletons to marvel at.

The tour started with a nice display of mammalian skulls and tusks. With each skull, Brandon would first let us guess what animal it is, and then explained something about its specific adaptations to the kind of environment the animal lives in. For example, some skulls have specialized structures for muscle attachments to generate a powerful bite. And it turns out that mammals have evolved an amazing range of tooth structures to perform such various tasks as cutting, grinding, digging, fighting, filtering, and even sensing (e.g., the narwhal tusk).

A display of mammalian skulls and tusks.
The display of mammalian skulls and tusks.

As always, click on any of the pictures to see a larger version…

Of course we all thought this was a crocodile. But given that it's actually a mammal, a killer whale (Orca) would have been the correct answer. In front of it is a part of a Narwhal tusk.
Of course we all thought this was a crocodile skull. But given that it’s actually a mammal, a killer whale (or orca) would have been the correct answer. In front of it is a part of a narwhal tusk.
The only available place to store the spine of a large whale...
The only available place to store the spine of a large whale…

A tour through the skull room, with long rows of closets filled with all kinds of mammalian skulls, revealed more interesting adaptations. This part was a bit eerie though, and could have come straight out of an “Alien” movie!

"Alien" skulls, row after row.
“Alien” skulls, row after row.
And some more...
And some more…

By then I could no longer resist to ask about my favorite mammal, the platypus. This must be one of the strangest creatures alive: a poisonous egg-laying mammal with a duck bill, otter feet, and beaver tail. And to my surprise they actually had an actual platypus bill lying around! I’ve had the good fortune to see two of these bizarre animals in the wild during my travels through Australia many years ago.

A platypus bill.
A platypus bill.

Our next stop, the antler room. Several rows of deer antlers, looking like a giant coat hanger…

I thought we had ended up in the wardrobe, but it turned out to be the antler room.
I thought we had ended up in the wardrobe, but it turned out to be the antler room.

Finally, after our private backstage tour, we had a little bit of time left to see part of the main museum exhibition, in particular the large dinosaur skeletons they have on display. Always impressive, no matter how old (or young) you are!

Two large dinosaur skeletons on display in the main entrance hall of the museum.
Two large dinosaur skeletons on display in the main entrance hall of the museum.
This guy barely fits under the roof...
This guy barely fits under the roof…
And then, the skull of "Tristan", the museum's own T. rex!
And then, the skull of “Tristan”, the museum’s own T. rex!
And its entire skeleton, the only one of its kind in Europe and the best preserved in the world.
And its (mostly original) skeleton, the only one of its kind in Europe and one of the best preserved in the world.
The entire skeleton is 12m in length, and an original specimen. The skull is a replica of the real one in the glass box (see previous picture).
The full skeleton is 12m in length and 4m in height. It was discovered in 2010 in Montana, USA.

This concluded our private tour of the “Museum für Naturkunde” in Berlin. Thanks to the Wiko and Brandon, I learned many interesting things about (mammal) evolution, and saw some impressive, original, and unique dinosaur skeletons from close up. For me, this tour was the best part of the whole workshop!

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