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25.02.2014 10:52

Sensational treasures in the Berlin Natural History Museum: parts of the Albertus Seba collection rediscovered

Dr. Gesine Steiner Press office
Museum of Natural History - Leibniz Institute for Evolution and Biodiversity Research

The herpetologists Aaron Bauer (Villanova University, USA) and Rainer Günther from the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin (MfN) made a sensational discovery: after years of research, they identified amphibian and reptile specimens from the famous natural history collection of the Dutchman Albertus Seba in the MfN, including many pieces that served as the basis for the first description of species. This means that the oldest specimens in the MfN's herpetological collection do not come from the 1770s, as previously assumed, but are at least 40 years older. The discovery enables further study of both the taxonomy of the species and the history of the early museum collections.

The oldest specimen in the herpetological collection of the Berlin Museum für Naturkunde (MfN) was previously considered to be a small skink, which was described by Ernst Bloch in 1776 under the name Lacerta serpens. However, it has been suspected several times that the Berlin collection also contains specimens from the natural history cabinet of the Dutchman Albertus Seba (1665-1736). This natural history cabinet is probably the most famous natural history cabinet of the 18th century. The scientists Aaron Bauer (Villanova University, USA) and Rainer Günther (MfN, Berlin) have now been able to confirm this assumption. After many years of research, they found various amphibian and reptile preparations from Seba in a consignment donated by Count von Borcke to the Zoological Museum of the Berlin University (today part of the MfN) in 1817.
According to the studies by Bauer and Günther, a total of 23 individuals from 21 animal species in the MfN could go back to Seba's second collection. Many of them have type status, so are the basis for the initial description of the respective species. The most convincing is the preparation of a giant snake (Phyton sebae), whose stomach and stomach have been opened so that the head and beak of a bird are visible. The same preparation was shown in Seba's Thesaurus (1735) and is listed in the sales catalog of the second Seba collection under the number 357 as "een gabandeerde Slang met een Vogeltje in de buik" (a banded snake with a bird in its belly). The von Borcke collection, which was previously seen as a relatively insignificant early donation to the Berlin Museum of Natural History, has emerged as one of the most historically valuable components of the museum's collections. The preparation from Python sebae (and probably many more specimens from this donation) is now to be regarded at least as the oldest herpetological material in the MfN collection and goes back to at least 1734, but possibly to 1717, when Seba began to build up a new collection . In addition, the Berlin collection gains a new historical significance because it has the largest number of herpetological objects that come from Seba and a larger number of its objects could be associated with Blasius Merrem, the author of several important herpetological works. The discovery of this material opens up the possibility of further study both of the taxonomy of the species whose types have been recovered and of the history of museum collections from the 18th and early 19th centuries.


BAUER, A & GÜNTHER, R .: Origin and identity of the von Borcke collection of amphibians and reptiles in the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin: a cache of Seba specimens? - Zoosystematics and Evolution 89 (1): 167-185 (2013)

BAUER, A. & GÜNTHER, R .: The amphibians and reptiles from the VON BORCKE collection of the Berlin Museum of Natural History: a treasure trove for SEBA material believed to be lost - Secretary 14 (1): 3-33 (2014)

Features of this press release:
Biology, history / archeology, cultural studies
Research results, scientific publications