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Terrestrial Vertebrates

  • Mammals: study skins and osteological collections of mainly southern African species.
  • Birds: study skins, eggs and osteological collections of mainly southern African species.
  • Reptiles & Amphibians: wet collection of mainly southern African species.
  • Freshwater Fish: on loan to the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity.


Terrestrial vertebrates are commonplace, distributed across the globe even though vertebrates, as a whole, make up a fraction of animal diversity. Other than that they’re land-based animals with vertebral columns (spines or backbones) they’re also characterised by their well-defined joints and digits (fingers and toes). In scientific jargon, terrestrial vertebrates are known as Tetrapoda, in reference to these limbs. While the broad definition of terrestrial vertebrates clearly excludes fish, for example, it also incorporates birds.

The origins of tetrapods are still hotly debated, as are the processes that let to their move from water to land. Nonetheless, this group includes over 21,000 extant (living) species and, it is believed, a much greater number of extinct species. At the Iziko South African Museum, the Terrestrial Vertebrate Collections attempts to cast some light into the questions still being asked about this group of animals.

The focus of the Museum’s Natural History Collections – of which this collection forms a part – is on southern Africa. So it includes, for example, historically important bird and mammal skin collections dating back to the 1850’s, specifically from this region. The latter features the foal of the extinct Quagga. Recent growth of the collections has centred on building up skeletal collections of birds and mammals, which are the best in South Africa. All the bird, amphibian, reptile and mammal collections have been digitised. 


  • Amphibian: A cold-blooded vertebrate animal, distinguished by its aquatic (water-living) gill-breathing larval (early) stages, followed by a terrestrial lung-breathing stage; the group includes frogs and toads.  
  • Cranial: Of the skull (cranium).
  • Digitised: Converting images, sounds and videos into digital format that can easily be viewed on a computer.
  • DNA: Full name deoxyribonucleic acid, the self-replicating material present in nearly all living organisms, and said to hold all the information about how an organism will look and function.
  • Foal: The young of the particular horse breed.
  • Mammal: Mammals are a warm-blooded vertebrate animal, distinguished by the possession of hair or fur, the secretion of milk by females for the nourishment of the young, and (typically) the birth of live young. 
  • Micromammal: A small mammal such as mouse or rat.
  • Osteology: The study of the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures.
  • Reptile: A cold-blooded vertebrate group that includes snakes, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, and tortoises. They are distinguished by their dry scaly skin, and typically lay soft-shelled eggs on land.
  • Species: A category in the biological classification of organisms.
  • Subspecies: A taxonomic (classification) category that ranks below species, a division that usually arises when animals of the same species live in different geographical regions. 
  • Terrestrial: Relating to the Earth, and in this case referring animals who live primarily or mostly on land.
  • Vertebrates: Animals with vertebral columns (spines/backbones).
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