The hippo collection

in the hippo room.jpg

Museum exhibits are wonderful, but what I absolutely adore are the collections kept under wraps. Give me a room lined with file drawers filled with carefully labeled pot shards and I'm in heaven. That's why I love this photo, taken in the Hippo Room (!!) in the Mammalogy Department of the American Museum of Natural History, by reader Mindy Weisberger, who works with the museum's Exhibitions Department. She says:

These are male and female hippo skulls from all over Africa, each weighing an average of about 200lbs. These and other large animal skulls were obtained by museum expeditions up until the 1950s/1960s, with the objective of building a collection that represented a range of morphological differences (based on sex and varying environmental conditions) and developmental stages. While the collections are not open to the public, they are utilized daily by the museum's own research associates and curatorial staff, and by visiting scientists from around the world.

Museums keep research collections like this tucked away in attics, basements and back rooms. In these quiet, little sanctuaries, touching is allowed. Getting access (albeit limited) to the collections at the University of Kansas' anthropology museum was one of the high points of my undergraduate experience. Mindy says the AMNH even has a few secret corridors where it stashes treasures. Great stuff!

Check out Mindy's entire set of photos from the hippo room.


  1. Concern troll. Images like that worry me. No restraints on the front of the shelves to prevent items from falling in the event of an earthquake. I know they aren’t on the west coast, but sitll. You can’t replace many collections.

  2. I keep seeing the dancing hippos from fantasia. Then the skulls. Then the dancing hippos. A rather grotesque tableaux, and a statement on the transient nature of life.

  3. I love these photos, as well, but they cry out for something in the frame (like a human hand, or human being) to give these enormous skulls a sense of scale. “200lbs” starts to give us some perspective, but a visual reference would help.

    1. A quick google suggests that hippo skulls are typically around two and a half feet long (I’d have taken long odds this morning on learning that factoid today). I find it difficult to believe that they weigh more than the average American male, though.

  4. Visit the La Brea Tar Pits. They have several halls lined with skulls from now extinct wolves I think. Hundreds or thousands.

    There is also free tar leaking out of the ground. Also gases bubbling through molasses like tar, leading to slo-mo bubble formation and breaking.

    I’ll let you decide what pharmaceuticals if any are appropriate.

  5. These photos made the biogeek in me happy!

    Some fun facts about hippos:

    – They can run up to 35 mph on land. (That’s about the speed of a racehorse!)

    – They can open their mouths 180 degrees–which is part of the males’ territorial display of his razor-sharp tusks. They are exceedingly territorial, and although herbivorous, they kill more people in Africa than any other animal besides man (and according to some reports, cape buffalo).

    – They don’t actually swim–they sink and push themselves off the bottom of the river or lake bed, bouncing along underwater like an astronaut on the moon.

    – Their skin produces an excretion called “blood sweat,” which is actually neither. It’s a reddish, oily substance that scientists are studying for possible antibiotic properties.

    – With their heads partially submerged, hippo ears can hear both above and below the surface of the water simultaneously.

    – The thick pads on the bottom of hippos’ feet allow them to move on land in near silence, even when running.

    That’s right, folks. Hippos are like the Chuck Norris of semi-aquatic mammals.

  6. If you like the idea of this sort of thing, then “Dry Store Room No.1” by Prof Richard Fortey will be right up your street too.

  7. Reminds me of the time I was running 10b5 etherhose through one of the ANSP’s collection rooms and found a dust covered, unlabeled, hermetically sealed box containing a preserved hippo stomach. You never know what you’ll find in an old museum… the mammalogists were so pleased, “we’ve been looking for this for ages!!”

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