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Meeting Hydrarchos in Person(s)

Last updated on August 10, 2016

Most of what remains of “Hydrarchos”. All images © courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

As you might have guessed from the title of this blog, I have a bit of a ‘thing’ going for Albert Koch’s Hydrarchos harlani. Last week, we were lucky enough to meet up with Hydrarchos (or part of her) in person, in the basement of the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin.

A bit of introduction is necessary, perhaps. The story of Hydrarchos itself has been told many times, although few have really looked into it in-depth.1 Last week, during the museum’s Knowing Things conference, Lukas Rieppel held a plea for Koch as a sincere and respected collector – as opposed to the sheister he’s usually made out to be. Lukas is going to publish on this subject, and it’ll be interesting to read the case he’s going to make.2

Cast of “Hydrarchos”‘ upper jaw . All images © courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

After a tour of the Eastern United States, Great Britain and finally Germany, Koch sold the fossil in 1847 to the natural cabinet of the Prussian King, Frederick William IV (colloquially known as FW4). This was still before FW4 would refuse the German imperial crown during the revolution of 1848, but he was already known for being something of an oddball. The interesting question, of course, is whether Johannes von Müller, FW4’s director of the cabinet, was aware of the purchase in advance – I haven’t seen much evidence either way sofar, but Lukas – who has – seems to think Von Müller was involved. Regardless, after it arrived in Berlin it was immediately re-designated as three distinct genera: Zeuglodon, Basilosaurus, and Zigorhiza.

Zeuglodon tooth. All images © courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

From that point onwards, its fate becomes a bit unclear; in subsequent reorganisations of the collection, it seems to have been placed at the anatomical cabinet3 initially, and then in the geological-paleontological museum, one of the museums in the Museum für Naturkunde, in 1889.4. A large part of the specimen(s) was (were) destroyed when the Museum was bombed in 1945.

Hydrarchos exhibited in the Hall of the Royal Iron Foundry in Berlin, 1842. From: Ilse Jahn (1985). “Zur Vertretung der Zoologie und zur Entwicklung ihrer institutionellen Grundlagen an der Berliner Universität von ihrer Gründung bis 1920.” Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Math-Wiss. Reihe 34, 273.

Happily, a helpful soul pointed my attention to an exhibition catalogue from 2000 which mentioned the museum’s Basilosaurus fossils, along with some information on Hydrarchos.5  This information allowed us to get in touch with the museum’s curator for fossil mammals, and last week we received the opportunity to meet up with our hero.6

Some traces of Koch’s handiwork on a “Zeuglodon” mandible. . All images © courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin.

Not a lot of Koch’s specimens is left; most of it was lost in the war, and one cupboard-ful and some other scraps remain.7 Koch’s preparation of his display was notoriously shoddy, and most of the fossils received further preparation in the century and a half after their purchase. But we found one mandible fragment that seemed to be in near ‘original’ condition.

It was a great experience to meet up with a specimen that made such an impression in its time, and whose history remains among the classic tales of early paleontology (or to be more exact, crypto-paleontology). But apart from that, looking at these remains left me with a new-found respect (and interest) for these early cetaceans. Many thanks to the Museum für Naturkunde and Oliver Hampe for having been given the opportunity.

Edit: it seems as though there’s a lot more left of Hydrarchos than we previously thought. More about that soon.

A few more photographic impressions below. For greater detail, click the photos (all images published courtesy of the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin)

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  1. Perhaps the best introductory treatment is given by Brian Switek (2010). Written in Stone: Evolution, the Fossil Record, and Our Place in Nature. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 145-173. 

  2. I hope he won’t mind me remaining resolutely on the fence until then. 

  3. Today part of the Charité Hospital’s Museum of Medical History. 

  4. The museum building itself was opened in 1885, containing the zoological and mineralogical collections; the geological and paleontological collections from the mining school were incorporated into the new geological-paleontological museum four years later. Up to this day, despite being housed in the same building, the three museums remain as separate administrative entities. 

  5. “Kabinett der Naturgeschichte”, in: Horst Bredekamp etc. (2000). Theater der Natur und Kunst – Theatrum Naturae et Artis. Berin: Henschel, 141-143. 

  6. ‘We’ contains Lukas Rieppel, Chris Manias and yours truly 

  7. To be precise: several vertebrae, some teeth, fragments of both jaws, part of a humerus, one posterior skull section, and casts of various skull parts 

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  1. Paul D Brinkman Paul D Brinkman

    Sorry I couldn’t be there for this! Looks like a good time with some great company.

  2. John Ruthven John Ruthven

    Hydrarchos exhibited in the Hall of the Royal Iron Foundry in Berlin, 1842. From: Ilse Jahn (1985)

    Don’ think that note under the picture is correct – the dates certainly are not as Koch hadn’t found the ‘serpent’ in 1842

    I think that picture is from his exhibit at the Apollo Halls, 410, Broadway, New York, about July 1845

    Did you ever follow up the remains that still exist?

    Somewhere there must be complete pictures of the complete exhibit in Berlin given that it was not damaged until 1945?

    Thanks for a great article!

    • Ilja Nieuwland Ilja Nieuwland

      Of course you’re right; this is prob. 1846-7. And in all probability it isn’t a specific site, but rather a romanticized version, as it was used for other venues as well.
      The animal was never exhibited in a Berlin museum; after the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm IV bought it in 1848, it was given to Johannes Müller at the anatomical museum, who knew the “animal” was bogus. So he took it apart and sold whatever surplus material he had elsewhere. The Zeuglodon/Zyghoriza remains disappeared into a cellar and were donated to the Museum für Naturkunde/Paläontologisches Museum when it entered the new building at the Invalidenstraße.
      The only other remains I have found are in Teyler’s Museum in Haarlem, The Netherlands. These were sold in the early 1850s to Teyler by Crantz in Bonn, who had received them from Müller. However, since they were sold as “Zeuglodon” and the original context was never mentioned, Teyler was entirely unaware of their origin for a long time until Tim de Zeeuw and I found out their provenance a few years ago. Koch’s numbers can still be seen on some vertebrae, and you can even see cutouts that were made in the fossils to fit in the wooden scaffolding. I may make a post about that soon. A skull sans mandible was also sold to Teyler.

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