Mammals are the group of warm-blooded animals to which humans belong and so contain some of our closest relatives. The egg-laying platypus and echidnas are also mammals, but with a very different evolutionary history. Mammals include the largest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale, and the tallest animal alive today, the giraffe. RAMM’s iconic bull Maasai giraffe, ‘Gerald’, has been in our collections since 1919 having been donated as part of the Peel collection.
Gerald the giraffe
Gerald the giraffe is one of RAMM’s most iconic specimens. This adult male giraffe has been an extremely popular exhibit at the Museum since 1920. He is a bull giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) and would have been an outstanding animal when alive.
In 1901 he encountered big game hunter Charles Victor Alexander Peel at Moshi, Kenya, close to the snow-capped Mount Kilimanjaro in what were German Territories. This encounter was to elevate him to iconic status far from his birthplace.
Peel defended the sport of big-game hunting saying: ‘that it exercises all the faculties which go to make a man most manly. The big-game hunter must be endowed with great powers of endurance, self-denial, forbearance, and tact when dealing with the natives, and he must be able to act with great bravery, often at a moment’s notice.’
Of giraffes Peel noted that ‘Their skins are immensely thick and heavy, and in consequence they are very difficult to dry, cure and carry’. Needless to say he displayed great manliness in securing this specimen. He found that they could be closely approached in thick bush as they were ‘continually looking over and beyond one’.
Gerald in transport
Gerald was skinned, dried and cured on site. Judging from how sections of the skin have been sewn together he was cut into manageable portions for the porters to carry. There was a newly built railway from Mombasa which terminated at Moshi. This was a German built line conceived as a rival to the British railway from Mombasa to Lake Victoria. From Mombasa the skin was shipped as freight to London where it was mounted by the famous taxidermy firm, Rowland Ward Ltd.
Gerald and RAMM
Gerald was previously known as George, as an affectionate tribute to King George V. However he was renamed Gerald by a former museum director who was not so fond of the Royal Family.
Since 1920 he has stood proudly in the Museum and is one of its most loved and most iconic exhibits. He is one of the few specimens that remained at RAMM during the redevelopment, spending many months in a crate, before being moved out of the window on Upper Paul Street and then being craned into the museum through the roof from Northernhay Gardens.
Come and visit Gerald, the tiger shot by King George V, and the elephant that was also collected by CVA Peel in RAMM’s Case Histories Gallery.
Other large mammals
Other large and impressive mounted specimens include the giant eland, the largest of antelopes and the tiger, presented by King George V. Marine mammals have also featured in the collection since 1875 and 1876 when fin whales were cast ashore at Teignmouth and Beer. Both specimens were purchased as skeletons for the Museum, though not in their entirety. Smaller whales and dolphins have since been acquired and prepared as skeletons.
This tiger is one of 39 tigers collected by King George V in 1911 and he presented it to the Museum in 1913. The other 38 were donated to other museums around Britain.
The Peel collection
‘Gerald’ the giraffe and the African elephant are two mounted animals from the Peel collection of ‘Big Game’. Charles Peel was so confident that big game hunting was the best lifestyle for young men in the late Victorian empire that he created his own private museum of big game animal mounts from around the world. Unfortunately for some animals, being either big and or fierce, might have led to a premature death at the hands of a hunter. Some of the earliest accessioned mammals were heads of game animals. These trophy heads were popular wall mounts in interior decor. Owners might have wished to be identified with the elite of well-travelled, adventurous gentlemen (the hunters were all men) who were a good shot and possibly brave in the face of large and potentially dangerous quarry. There used to be a considerable competitive element within hunting circles, so in general, the bigger the better.
Peel’s Museum was in Oxford and a building that now houses the Oxford Playhouse. He saw it as an advert for what he considered a most rewarding way of life. He also wrote books about his hunting exploits. When he moved to north Devon he offered the collection to Oxford City, who declined, but his subsequent offer to Exeter City Council was enthusiastically accepted. The museum had to create a temporary extension at the rear of the Museum, called the Peel Hut, in which to display many of his big game mounts.
Whilst the natural history section has never had a separate purchase fund, there have been occasions when mounted mammals have been selected from the stock lists of large taxidermy companies. The animals selected have filled gaps in the Museum’s representation of the many different mammal groups to be found around the world.
Although large mammals are the attraction for visitors, it is the smaller mammals and specimen fragments that add scientific value to a collection. Unlike birds they have not been collected for aesthetic reasons, and they are not usually mounted in lifelike poses. Even so, a collection of local species gives us a useful ecological insight as small mammals play a part in our immediate environment and everyday lives.
Often the specimens are just skins, or skins that have been stuffed with a material such as wood wool to give a rounded shape. Other specimens are mounted on a card ‘finger’ to give the skins some support.
Not just your average moles…
A variety of other animals are caught in traps that are designed to catch mammals (such as rats, mice, grey squirrels and moles) which are considered to be pests. Occasionally both the intentionally caught species, and the ‘by-catch’, are offered to the Museum. Moles were trapped in such huge numbers that no-one seemed to bother much about having representative specimens in the collection, but it appears that nearly all the albino, ginger or otherwise unusually coloured moles were retained. Most of the moles collected up to the last quarter of the 20th century were unusual colour variants. Casual collecting became a more important source of material after this period.
Unfortunately a large number of animals die on our roads. In recent years this has become the most common reason for small mammals to enter our collections.
There is a lot that can be learned from a collection of historic specimens and those killed recently on the roads, and data gleaned from donations can help scientists reach a better understanding of local species variation and the effects mankind is having on the environment.
Wilfred the pangolin
This slightly odd looking mammal is ‘Wilfred’ the Sunda pangolin (Manis javanica) from the scrub forests of Malaysia. Also known as scaly anteaters or trenggilings, they use their sharp front claws to break into termite mounds and ant nests and their long slender tongues to feed on the inhabitants.
In 1953, during the Malayan Campaign, Major John Salmon MC joined his SAS regiment in Kuala Lumpur and was parachuted in to the deep jungle to live and work with an aboriginal tribe. A chief of the tribe gave him, as a present, a live pangolin which later became known as Wilfred. Sadly he was unable to give Wilfred the right food and the pangolin died. However, it was possible to have him stuffed and he returned to England with the family. The family acquired a number of pets during their time in Malaysia including a slow loris which is believed to have been donated to London Zoo.
There are only 8 living species of pangolin; the four Asian species can be easily distinguished from the four African pangolins because they have bristles which extend beyond the edge of their scales. It is in part due to these scales, which are made of keratin (the same material as human fingernails) that has led to the pangolin becoming endangered. They are killed for food and the use of their skin and scales in traditional medicine and fashion, but the pangolin has been a protected species in Malaysia since 1972.