The Iziko Natural History Collections stand among the oldest, richest and most distinctive collections in the country. Together, the millions of specimens chronicle the natural history of animals and plants from Southern Africa and across the world. In so doing, they tell a fascinating story of life on Earth – from the earliest origins to how life has evolved into what we have today. Without natural history collections and research we would not know that some two million years ago, Hipparion (a three-toed horse) was replaced by the single-toed Equus, which is related to the iconic Quagga once resident on Table Mountain. Or that the coelacanth is a living fossil fish – once thought to be extinct, or that there were once bears in Southern Africa, or that all mammals evolved from a shrew-sized common ancestor – the fossils of which are found in the Karoo, or that South Africa’s two oceans has shaped its almost 13, 000 marine species – impressive for its small coastline and useful for coastal livelihoods. The collections are, therefore, a permanent record of existing and extinct animals that would be long forgotten otherwise, as would our understanding of the intricacies of evolution.
The Natural History Collections are currently housed in the Iziko South African Museum. They contain over three million specimens (and still growing in number) that have been amassed over nearly 200 years by the in-house scientists, collectors and curators, with contributions from across the globe. Today the collections range from fossils that are almost 700 million years old, to insects and fish caught just last week. They encompass mammals, dinosaurs, reptiles, fishes, invertebrates, and even meteorites and minerals.
There are five major collections that are organised as follows:
Marine Biodiversity Collections hold sub-collections of invertebrates, vertebrates and mammals that live in our oceans;
Entomology Collections hold several thousands of insect specimens;
Palaeontology Collections hold Cenozoic (65 million years ago to recent), Karoo, and Invertebrate palaeontology sub-collections;
Terrestrial Vertebrate Collections hold mammal, bird, reptile and amphibian sub-collections;
Rock and Mineral Collections include several thousand specimens of minerals, rocks and meteorites.
As a whole, these collections serve society and science as the unrivalled sources of palaeo, biodiversity and environmental record over time. Iziko’s Natural History Collections afford visitors the opportunity to nurture their interest in the world around them, expand their knowledge base and be inspired. Scientists (including students and citizen scientists) are provided with a wealth of material and information for research that supports policy and decision making to ensure the sustainability of our natural heritage for future generations.
The collections and their associated knowledge, unlocked by the research efforts of our museum curators, are a unique source of objects and information for displays that benefit the thousands of people visiting the South African Museum each year. While only a fraction of the specimens that are housed at the museum are on exhibit they have been carefully selected and displayed to give us a glimpse into the wonders of our beautiful and diverse animal and plant life.