24 examples from the 3000 species in the biodiversity wall at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin
More on the thornback ray:
Cartilaginous fishes are different
Thornback rays (Raja clavata) occur on shallow, sandy to muddy coasts in the eastern Atlantic, down to 300-450 m depth. The name refers to the nail-like thorns on its back and tail. There’s no directed fishing of this species, but it frequently gets into the trawls of the industrial fishery as a by-catch. Today, stocks have decreased to alarming levels and it is almost extinct in the North Sea.
Rays are classified together with sharks and chimaeras as cartilaginous fishes. This class forms an independent branch of vertebrates recorded since more than 400 million years. In other words: Despite looking superficially similar, cartilaginous fishes are only very distantly related to modern bony fishes like herring, tuna, carp or salmon. The latter are in fact closer to tetrapod vertebrates – among them the human species.
By the way: Like the most other fishes displayed in the biodiversity wall, the exhibited specimen is a moulded, coloured copy of a dead specimen, randomly caught in 2005 at Norway’s coast. But the thorns are indeed originals!
(For more information, see also Thornback ray in Wikipedia.)
More on the shoebill:
The Shoebill's (Balaeniceps rex) name comes from the extraordinary shape of its bill which indeed reminds of a shoe. These striking birds can reach a height of 1.40 m and a wingspan of 2.30-2.60 m. The shoebill occurs in swampy habitats from Sudan to Zambia, feeding mostly on fish. The males and females build a big nest (up to 1.70 m diameter) on solid ground or a floating platform. Even though the female lays several eggs, usually only one young is brought up.
Shoebills are mainly threatened by habitat destruction and hunting and are on the endangered species list. Their remaining population is estimated to be just 5000–8000 birds. The specimen shown here came from Sudan and arrived in Berlin already in 1855.
Do you know the children's story "Urmel from the Ice Age / Impy's Island"? It's our pleasure to introduce: Schusch!
(For more information, see also Shoebill in Wikipedia.)
Dragons can fly …
… every child knows this! Today it is quite unlikely for a child not to have read some stories containing a flying dragon. But in reality? Well, yes, some flying dragons exist! And the famous biologist Linné even gave them the genus “Draco”.
They really are tree-living, insect-eating lizards of the Agamidae family, which can use their flying membrane (which is supported by ribs!) as means to glide long distances from tree to tree. Although they don’t actively fly, their gliding capabilities are impressive: Glides of 60 m length, losing only 10 m in altitude have been recorded.
(For more information, see also Draco in Wikipedia.)
More on the Chameleon:
Chameleons don’t actively adapt themselves to the colours of their environment
Chameleons are famous for their combination of independently moving eyes, tong-like toes, a long, rapidly projecting tongue, a prehensile (grasping) tail and, of course, their proverbial ability to change their colour.
However, the assumption that chameleons adapt their colour to the background colour of the environment is not fully correct for most species. Chameleons appear invisible primarily because their colour patterns optically dissolve their silhouettes. A chameleon is seen only when moving – which often it does not.
In fact, chameleons use colour change primarily as a means of communication. For instance, in the Veiled Chameleon (Chamaeleo calyptratus) exhibited here, the normally greenish coloured females use yellowish and turquoise spots on a dark background to signal their pregnancy - saving themselves from being constantly approached by males.
More on the budgerigar:
Budgerigars (Melopsittacus undulatus) belong to the parrots and occur – sometimes in very large flocks – in dry regions of Australia. They feed mainly on seeds. The natural plumage colouring is green and yellow with black. From this, human beings have bred numerous other colour variations including blue, white and grey. The first budgerigars came to Europe already around 1840, and they are still a favourite pet. They are excellent at mimicking human speech. A budgerigar called Puck is said to have had an impressive vocabulary of 1728 words. Budgerigars demonstrate their affection through mutual feeding. It was observed that they can drink water while gliding over water if there is no good place to land.
Question: What is the budgerigar sitting on?
(For more information, see also Budgerigar in Wikipedia.)
More on the raccoon dog:
At first glance raccoon dogs (Nyctereutes procyonoides) look like raccoons. However, they actually belong to the dog family and their closest relatives are the grey fox and bat-eared fox. They feed on insects, rodents, amphibians and carrion. They are good swimmers. Living in monogamous pairs, the male plays an important role in raising the young.
Raccoon dogs originally come from East Asia. However, they were released into the wild in Western Russia between about 1920 and 1950 and hunted for their fur. Therefore, today raccoon dogs occur in large areas of Central and Western Europe. It reached Germany in 1960 and now has spread to all parts of it. The introduction of such foreign species can sometimes cause problems for native plants, animals and for humans. For example, raccoon dogs spread rabies. During hibernation (which incidentally is unique amongst dogs), the virus survives, making it harder to control the disease.
(For more information, see also raccoon dog in Wikipedia.)
More on the echidna:
The Echidna (Tachyglossidae) family contains just four species which, along with the duckbilled platypus, are the only mammals which lay eggs. The grape-sized egg has a leathery shell. After being laid, it is carried around by the female in a pouch on her belly. After 10 days a 15 mm long, naked and blind young echidna hatches. The offspring drinks milk from pores in the mother's pouch.
The most striking characteristic of the echidna is without doubt its spiny, hedgehog-like coat which covers the animal's skin along with the thick fur on its belly, legs and head. Another special feature is its elongated snout which is equipped with electroreceptors. These are used for finding their prey (ants and termites in the case of the short-billed echidna and worms in the case of the long-billed echidna). The animal's long sticky tongue is particularly useful for picking up such prey.
(For more information, see also Echidna in Wikipedia.)
More on the giant pangolin (Smutsia gigantea):
This unusual animal is found in West and Central Africa where it is under severe hunting pressure for its meat and supposed healing powers. Most of their surface, with the exception of their underside and the inner surfaces of its legs, is covered with conspicuous, overlapping, plate-like scales. Besides the scales, another distinctive characteristic of the animal are the very long claws on its forelegs. These are used to dig underground burrows or hunt for insects. A main source of food of the giant pangolin are termites, which is can hunt with its sticky tongue of up to 70 cm in length. A giant pangolin can consume two litres of food per day. When threatened by predators, like leopards or crocodiles, it rolls up into a ball or defends itself with its tail and claws.
More on the pygmy slow loris:
The Pygmy slow loris (Nycticebus pygmaeus), which is completely nocturnal, occurs to the east of the Mekong in South-East Asia. These small primates reach a maximum weight of 500 g and can live for up to 20 years. Pygmy slow loris spend their entire lives in trees, crawling along branches. They are unable to leap! Their food consists of insects, fruits and tree exudates. They have a very slow metabolism in comparison to other mammals of the same size. This enables them to let the hard-to-digest tree exudates ferment in their intestine for a long time, making more efficient use of the nutrients. Their diet also includes centipedes and caterpillars poisonous for other species; again the poison is neutralised by their special digestive process.
(For more information, see also Pygmy slow loris in Wikipedia.)
More on the Falkland Steamer Duck:
Falkland Steamer Duck – attack or escape in freestyle
As the name already suggests, this species of steamer ducks (Tachyeres brachypterus) occurs only near the Falkland Islands. It’s a flightless bird; our zoos often keep it together with penguins in the same enclosure. The specimen shown here is a female which died in 1989 at the Berlin Zoo.
The name steamer duck is based on their behaviour. When they need to escape or attack, they don’t just rely on their webbed feet, but obtain additional propulsion using their short wings. These are alternately paddled through the water in a very conspicuous and efficient manner. From a distance and with some of imagination, the look like the rotating paddle wheels of an old fashioned steamer boat. In reality, it might perhaps be better compared with a freestyle swimmer – albeit the duck is moving much faster!
More on the Kakapo:
Fat, fragrant, and almost eaten up
The Kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) is the world’s only nocturnal and flightless parrot. And with about 4 kg it is also the heaviest parrot of the world. Bevor the arrival of European settlers, several hundred thousand of this species could be found on New Zealand’s main islands.
The Kakapos have an intense but pleasant smell similar to honey or bee wax. This may possibly play a significant role in mating, helping to find a partner in the dark. Studies have shown that Kakapos possess a strong sense of smell, which is quite unusual for birds. They use this sense primarily to locate their food, consisting of plants, seeds, and fruits.
Unfortunately, their inherent odour was quite clearly harmful for the Kakapo. During New Zealand’s settlement, dogs and rats, later also cats, weasels, and martens were introduced and quickly reproduced. For the predators, as well for humans, the fat, fragrant and completely defenceless Kakapos were easy prey. By 1994, just 47 individuals remained alive. Although, thanks to intensive protection, the population has since almost tripled, the Kakapo remains one of the most seriously endangered species of the world.
The exhibited, outstandingly well preserved, specimen is a female that was shot in 1884.
(For more information, see also Kakapo in Wikipedia.)
More on the kiwi:
Kiwis (Apteryx mantelli) are nocturnal birds found only on the North Island of New Zealand. They are world record holders in that they lay the largest egg in proportion to their body size of any bird. Whilst the egg is developing in the female's body she eats three times her normal amount of food. Then, a few days before laying, the bird stops eating because the egg has become so large that there is no longer any room in the stomach. After the egg is laid, incubation is done only by the male. Kiwi pairs have a monogamous bond which can last for up to 20 years. A special feature of the kiwis are their nostrils which are located at the tip of the beak. This enables the birds to detect worms within the soil. Similar to the Kakapo, the greatest threat to these flightless birds is the introduction of small mammals by humans. The specimen exhibited here is from the Berlin zoo.
More on the elephant shrew:
The Elephant Shrew (Elephantulus), which occurs only in Africa, has a superficial resemblance to a shrew. However, these animals are not related to shrews. Instead they are close relatives of sea cows and, well, elephants! Their food, which they track down by smell, consists of small invertebrates, such as termites and ants, as well as fruits and seeds. Food is extremely fast flicked up into their mouth using their very long tongue. Despite their small size, elephant shrews can reach speeds of up to 28 km/h. Together with their well-developed sight and hearing, this enables them to quickly escape from any risks.
(For more information, see also Elephantulus in Wikipedia.)
More on the Armadillo:
Armadillos (Dasypoda) are confined to South America and the south-east of North America. With a body weight of 30-60 kg they are certainly no lightweights. However, some of their predecessors were even larger, reaching 100 kg and more.
The upper side of the body is covered with a leathery armour as a protection from predators and thorny plants. A few species can furthermore roll themselves up into a ball. When threatened by predators, the animals often seek shelter in underground holes and thorny scrub. Since the 1960s it is known that armadillos can suffer and die from leprosy. Around 20% of the populations in Texas and Louisiana are currently affected. Street traffic represents another major threat, to which many animals fall victim.
(For more information, see also Armadillo in Wikipedia.)
More on the Chinese giant salamander:
The Chinese giant salamander (Andrias davidianus), which measures up to 1.8 m in length, is the largest amphibian on Earth. These principally nocturnal animals occur in China (Central or South to South-West) and are adapted to living exclusively in water. The habitat of these striking animals consists of mountain lakes and cold fast-flowing streams. Their diet is composed of fish, crustaceans as well as occasionally worms, insect larvae, and molluscs. One of their unusual characteristics is that the males are responsible for nest building and guarding the eggs. Chinese giant salamanders reach sexual maturity only after around 15 years. These living fossils have been known to survive up to the age of at least 60 year in captivity. Unfortunately, the species is critically endangered and studies estimate that by the year 2000 over 90% of their habitat was destroyed.
(For more information, see also Chinese giant salamander in Wikipedia.)
More on seahorses:
Seahorses – males in labour
Despite their unusual body structure, the seahorses (Hippocampus) belong to the “normal” (= teleost) fishes. Their reproductive behaviour is most interesting: During mating, the female lays its eggs into a special breeding pocket on the male’s belly. There, the eggs are fertilized and incubated. After hatching, the male ejects the hatchlings by muscular contractions, reminding of the labour contractions of a birthing mother.
Seahorses belong to the most popular species at every public aquarium because of their seemingly peaceful behaviour and bizarrely cute appearance. They have a head like a horse, a pouch like a kangaroo, eyes like a chameleon, and a tail like a spider monkey. But really: Which male of any other species has labour contractions?
(For more information, see also Seahorse in Wikipedia.)
More on the common Suriname toad:
Mating by looping
The Common Suriname Toad (Pipa pipa) lives in stagnant or slowly flowing waters of the Amazon basin. Belonging to an early clade of amphibians, it has a lateral line and no tongue.
Its reproductive behaviour is interesting: After the male embraces the female’s hips, the pair perform several vertical circular paths within the water between bottom and surface. Every time the female releases some eggs at the water surface, which get stuck on the belly of the male. At the water bottom, the male fertilises the eggs and disperses them on the female’s back, where they remain stuck. After mating, the eggs become enclosed by a mucous layer. This layer hardens, forming a honeycomb-like structure with a lid over every egg. The hatchlings develop within several weeks, bypassing the tadpole stage. Finally they force the lid of their cell open, emerging as fully developed miniature versions of their parents. The honeycomb like layer, with opened cells can be clearly observed in the exhibited specimen.
See also an exhibit by Frogs and Friends, which discusses the Suriname toad.
(For more information, see also Common Suriname toad in Wikipedia.)
More on the Horseshoe crab:
Blue blood for medicine
Horseshoe crabs (Limulus) mostly inhabit shallow, sandy tropical coasts. In addition, one species is found at the southern part of the Atlantic coast of North America. They are an ancient lineage that goes back 450 million years. They may look like crustaceans, but are actually related to arachnids like spiders or scorpions.
Horseshoe crab blood is blue because it contains a copper-based oxygen carrier (haemocyanin instead of haemoglobin). Interestingly, its blood quickly coagulates in the presence of minute concentrations of bacterial toxins. This property is widely used in medicine to test infusions, vaccines and medical devices for bacterial contamination. Unfortunately, a synthetic substitute has yet to be produced. Several thousands of these animals are captured every year, used for involuntary blood donations, and released back into the ocean.
(For more information, see also Horseshoe crab in Wikipedia.)
More on the Red Panda:
The Red Panda – adorable, but not a Panda
Only few species of mammals show the charming, teddy-bear-like characteristics of the Red Panda or Cat Bear (Ailurus fulgens): Chubby cheeks, with eyes, nose and short snout close together in the lower part of the face. This cuteness is intensified by its big ears. Most people find the Red Panda exceptionally adorable; the great naturalist and zoologist Georges Cuvier even called it “the most handsome mammal on earth”.
The Red Panda is only distantly related to the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca), although both species possess not only a similar dentural structure but also a 6th finger (actually an elongated carpal bone). And neither is it a cat, even though it grooms itself in a similar fashion. In fact, the Red Panda represents a separate family within the mustelid order. Its nearest relatives are the skunks.
(For more information, see also Red panda in Wikipedia.)
More on the American Lobster (Homarus americanus):
Lobsters aren’t originally red
Lobsters are famous as an exquisite, lobster-red culinary delicacy. It does not seem to be a problem that they are scavengers and cannibals. But don’t worry: They mainly feed on invertebrates like mussels, starfishes or annelids. And most of the cannibalism occurs in the cramped confines of a lobster trap or the limited space of a fish trader’s tank.
The red colour of a cooked lobster is caused by astaxanthine pigments, most of which are created from other pigments during cooking.
Lobsters can reach over 90 years of age. Until they reach a tradable size, they normally will have reproduced several times. However, even at full-size, they usually remain significantly smaller than the American lobster you can see here. A specimen of this size is rarely caught today because lobster stocks are overexploited.
By the way, the exhibited specimen is an original. It is merely slightly re-colourized during preparation.
(For more information, see also American lobster in Wikipedia.)
More on the kinglets (Regulus regulus)...
Kinglets become extinct when you reach 50
The gold- and firecrest – or kinglets – are Europe’s smallest bird species, weighing only 4-7 g. That is less than a 1-Euro-coin! Their golden crest reminds of a small golden crown, leading to the scientific genus name "Regulus" (diminutive of rex, king) and English "kinglet".
Like many other small song-birds, kinglets in the wild can be reliably determined by their specific song. Although quite loud, it is exceptionally high. As our hearing ability for high frequencies decreases with increasing age, we hear it less and less. Thus, vicious tongues say: “Kinglets become extinct after you’re 50.”
By the way: The exhibited specimen is a male goldcrest.
More on the tuatara:
Well refrigerated, the tuatara survived the dinosaurs
The Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus) still occurs on some rat-free islands around New Zealand’s North Island. On the main islands it became extinct as result of the predation by ground-living predators, introduced by human settlers. The tuatara is nocturnal and, as a result of the cool climate of its habitat, with 16-21 °C it has the lowest preferred body temperature of all living reptiles. At 28 °C it dies from overheating! Consequently, it has an exceptionally slow metabolism. Tuataras take 10-20 years to reach sexual maturity and have a lifespan of more than 90 years.
From the similar looking scaled reptiles (order Squamata, including lizards and snakes), the tuatara differs in having a complete lower temporal arch between the upper jaw bones and the jaw joint. This characterizes the tuatara as the last living species of the ancient reptile order Sphenodontia, fossils of which have been recorded since about 240 million years ago.
That’s why the tuatara is called a living fossil. It survived well stored in a cool place: New Zealand.
(For more information, see also Tuatara in Wikipedia.)
... we have some better images and more information on Darwin’s Rhea:
Leftovers for science
Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata) occurs dispersed in grass-covered habitats of Patagonia in South America. It is smaller and, already in Darwin's time, significantly rarer than the greater rhea (Rhea americana, also living in South America).
During his legendary voyage with the “Beagle”, Darwin came to Patagonia around Christmas 1833. He spent much effort trying to shoot a specimen of this yet undescribed species to have it published scientifically. He finally succeed by accident: After a probably quite rustic evening meal Darwin found out, to his regret, that a specimen of the dearly wanted bird had been shot, broiled and consumed by all – including himself. Without further ado, he collected the leftovers of the exclusive dish. He was able to send the head, neck, legs, wings, several big feathers and a large piece of the skin to London, where the new species Rhea darwinii was scientifically described.
(For more information, see also Darwin's rhea in Wikipedia.)
Scientists are working hard to estimate the correct number. Current estimates vary, depending on the methods used. They range from 8.7±1.3 mill. (UNEP 2011), over 5±3 Mill (Costello et al. 2013) to 1 million million species (10 to the power of 12, Locey & Lennon 2016). This is an area of active and exciting research!
In this presentation we have simplified this range to a plausible average estimate of "8 Million" - without claiming this to be a more correct number than any other!
Primary authors: Gregor Hagedorn (overall concept and various texts), Oskar Neumann (Thornback ray, Steamer duck, Kakapo, Seahorse, Suriname toad, Limulus, Red Panda, Lobster, Chameleon, Kinglets, Tuatara, Darwin’s Rhea), Sonja Calvus (Shoebill, Budgerigar, Raccoon dog, Pangolin, Echidna, Loris, Kiwi, Elephant shrew, Armadillo, Giant salamander)
Contributors and scientific consultation: Martin Aberhan, Alice Chodura, Oliver Coleman, Jason Dunlop, Pascal Eckhoff, Astrid Faber, Sylke Frahnert, David Lazarus, Johannes Müller, Mark-Oliver Rödel, Johannes Vogel
Photography: Carola Radke, Hwa Ja Götz, Antje Dittmann, Alice Chodura, Google Cultural Institute (Gigapixel image); NASA (used under Public Domain US Government)
Experience the famous biodiversity wall also in other exhibits:
1. A Virtual Reality story of diversity and its loss (contains both English and German version, approximate viewing time: 5 min.).
2. A Tagged Biodiversity Wall, with a zoomable gigapixel panorama containing the names of selected specimens and groups (approximate viewing time: 4 min. – plus any amount of time to explore the names).