By Esther Langan and Diane Pitassy
The Division of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History has lots of brains, and we’re not just being braggarts about how smart we think we are. In addition to having over 600,000 “traditionally-preserved” mammal specimens (i.e., study skins and skulls), we also have a brain collection that numbers almost 1,000 specimens. You would not believe the number of zombie requests we receive at this spooky time of year to “visit” the brain collection (Zombie visitor stats provided below*). What the zombies don’t know is that the brains are well guarded and are preserved in a not-so-tasteful concoction of formalin, alcohol (not the drinkin’ kind), and water to keep them as well-preserved as possible for scientific research. In fact, most of the specimens in the collection have been luxuriating in this non-potable preservative cocktail since their acquisition by the museum way back in the early 1900s.
The National Museum of Natural History’s brain collection was started in 1903 by anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, but it also contains specimens that date back even earlier to the 1880s. Back then the brain collection was housed in the Physical Anthropology Department in the museum and also included human brains in addition to non-human primates (monkeys, apes), carnivores (lions, tigers, and bears, oh my), insectivores (shrews, hedgehogs), rodents (rats, squirrels), marsupials (kangaroos), reptiles, and birds. It was later split up so that the Division of Mammals received all non-human mammal brains, the Department of Anthropology retained the human specimens, bird brains went to the Division of Birds, and the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles received its herpetological grey matter.
Currently, the Division of Mammals houses brains from roughly 240 different mammal species: from “mundane” specimens like domestic dogs and cats, raccoon, and fox to more exotic specimens such as great apes (chimpanzee, gorilla, and orangutan), anteater, zebra, hyena, camel, Tasmanian devil, giraffe; from the tiny brains of voles and vampire bats to the larger ones like the fin whale, hippopotamus, and elephant. The collection even has a brain from the extinct Thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger. Like the rest of the mammal collection, it also contains some specimens that have historical, as well as scientific, value like the brain from a lion that was gifted to President Teddy Roosevelt by King Menelik of Abyssinia in 1904.
Basically, the collection is a veritable smorgasbord of mammalian brain diversity glazed with a heavy layer of history that any zombie would just die (again) to sink its jagged chompers into. However, a wonderful comparative anatomical collection like this is still, as Hrdlička wrote in a 1916 Science journal article, only “freely accessible for consultation to well-qualified scientific workers…” Sorry, zombies; even if you used to be a “well-qualified scientific worker,” a pulse is a set in stone visitor requirement, so shamble off to find your own brains to devour!
*Approximately 5,234 every year, with zombie visit requests (ZVRs) peaking annually at the end of October. The first dead give-away of a ZVR are the scrawls on the visitor registration form with “purpose of visit” entered as “Me hungry 4 brainz.” The second dead give-away is the dead person (aka, “zombie”) attempting to eat legitimate scientific visitors when approaching the museum security gate.
HAVE A HAPPY SPOOKY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!!!