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A whale of a job part IV: Burning Questions

Posted on 30-08-2017 by Becky Desjardins

So far we have found so many interesting things in this project.

Bones that were broken but healed  naturally, strange notches in the vertebrae, specimens of rare species...it has been a good few weeks! One of the oddest things that we found, though were two specimens that had some damage unlike any other. It appears that they were in a fire!  The bones are scorched and parts broken off.  Both of these specimens are very old, pre 1850.  One of them is a Narwhal (with 2 tusks!) and the other is a Common Bottlenose Dolphin.  


We were super curious about these specimens, because there is no fire recorded in the history of Naturalis. However, both of these animals came to Naturalis from the Zoological Museum Amsterdam in 2011.  Before they were at ZMA they were both originally part of the Vrolik collection, which belonged to Artis Zoo.  The collection was put together by a father and son team, Gerard and Willem Vrolik.  The collection consisted of human remains, both Dutch and collected from Dutch colonies, some ethnographic material, and the remains of animals from Artis who had died.


Interestingly, a colleague in herpetology told me she has a skeleton of a monitor lizard  from Vrolik that also appears burned in her collections.


After a  bit of sleuthing we discovered that parts of Artis zoo were bombed in 1941 by English planes who were shooting German trains located just behind the zoo.  A number of places were destroyed, including service buildings, part of the antelope hall, bird house, and the skeleton collection.  The fire after the bombing raged for 3 hours. Most likely this is how the whale and reptile skeletons were burned.  The remaining mystery, though is why not ALL of the whales from the Vrolik collection have burn damage. Was the fire not very bad? Were some whales stored in a different collection depot and only a few on exhibits?  Unfortunately, this information may be lost in the haze of history.


The history of Artis Zoo in the Second World War is fascinating. To read more check out this link (in dutch) http://historiek.net/artis-in-oorlogstijd/55758/

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