Only museums protect the basic, so-called type, material used by a scientist every time he is not sure about the classification of some animal. Only there are we able to find a sufficiently large series of a specific species for the thorough study of its variability. It is only museum depositories which protect the collections of already extinct kinds of species whose form would otherwise only be estimated on the basis of old descriptions, drawings and yellowed photographs. The indispensable scientific, cultural and educational role of the Museum is absolutely undeniable. However, the aim of this text is not to describe in detail our work and the significance of museums, but to introduce the visitor to the exhibition to the most precious and the most beautiful zoological exhibits stored in the National Museum.
Among the greatest treasures of the National Museum exhibits are the collections of already entirely exterminated animals. This exhibition will subsequently introduce 5 species which share this sad fate. The flightless bird, the Mauritius Dodo (Raphus cucullatus), known also under its more popular name, Dodo, is in first place. It was extirpated on the island of Mauritius as early as 1681. The displayed skeletal remnants are among the world’s greatest treasures. They may originate from an animal purportedly bred by the emperor Rudolph II himself on his estate. In second place is the Great Auk (Alca impennis ), another flightless bird successfully exterminated by man (before 1844). Our exhibits come from the collection of Baron Feldegg. A young animal without a white spot around his eye is a world rarity. In addition, the Labrador Duck (Camptorhynchus labradorius), Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) and Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis) did not survive their encounters with man and on the occasion of this exhibition were taken from the safety of our depositories.
Other unique materials presented are the collections of those types of animal that have entirely disappeared from the wild, with their last representatives surviving as a result of artificial breeding. They are, for example, the Barbary Lion (Panthera leo leo), a North African type of lion which is, as a great a rarity, bred only in a few zoological gardens in the world, amongst others in the Dvůr Králové Zoo (the skull is exhibited).
In the present time of protective laws, it is practically impossible to add to the collections of animals at the edge of extinction in the wild. Yet the research of these animals can help in their protection. In this aspect, the National Museum can pride itself on its rich collections, deliberately created in the course of the 180 years of its existence. Once again, the rarest animals were selected for display. For example, the very rare Madagascan prosimian Aye-Aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis) and the Ruffed Lemur (Varecia variegata) and the Siberian Tiger (Panthera tigris altaica) – the largest type of tiger which number approximately only the last 200 individuals in the Far East. Further, there is a sample of numerous collections of skulls of the White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), the second biggest terrestrial mammal critically endangered by hunting for its horn (see the exhibit which documents the 6th longest horn in the world of this Rhinoceros). The Red Panda (Ailurus fulgens), the prodigious New Zealand flightless bird, the Kiwi (Apterix australis), and the rare Dipneusti Australian Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) were included from further unique material. The display of Tautara (Sphenodon punctatus) is the showcase of one of the world’s richest collections of this memorable reptile, popularly called “a living fossil”. (42 individuals, skeletons and skins).
Rarity is a concept which changes over time. Species once common have become rare due to today’s hunting, collecting and especially the devastation of the environment. On the other hand, in the case of less noticeable species considered rare in the past, unexpectedly rich populations have been discovered, thanks to the improved possibilities of research. The last group of the exhibited zoological displays therefore presents such animals that we consider rare, whether for their inaccessibility, unusual size and shape, exceptional beauty or the unusually hard work required for their collection and preparation. This, for example, includes unique collections of birds’ eggs, splendid shells of both sea and freshwater molluscs, fragile skeletons of sponges and Anthozoa and beautiful displays of bizarre crabs. Evidence of the difficulty of combining the general and scientific view of rarity and the price of collected objects can be seen in the exhibited shell, coiled in an anti-clockwise direction in contrast to the normally clockwise direction, of the Brown Garden Snail (Helix pomatia). Such a deviation of the normal form occurs approximately once in a million times in Nature.
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