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Name That Mammal

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As I mentioned not long ago, National Geographic Weekend radio host Boyd Matson (at right above) and producer Ben Shaw invited me to join them on a trip across town to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

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Boyd and Ben had an appointment with biologist Kristofer Helgen, a 2009 National Geographic Emerging Explorer who happens to be the curator of the world’s largest collection of mammals.

Just how big is that collection? Well, hundreds of creatures are on display for visitors in the museum’s exhibition halls, including the elephant at the door …

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…and the critters hanging around the sparkling new Hall of Mammals, including a welcoming manatee…

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… a leaping tiger…

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…and a stately lion. Mufasa indeed!

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But what the public sees is just the ears, if you will, of the giraffe. Most of the Smithsonian’s more than 600,000 mammal specimens are kept in a few locations offsite, or squirreled away behind the scenes at the museum, shelved in an endless succession of unassuming cabinets.

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Within the cabinets, in tidy drawers and boxes, hide pelts upon pelts, plus skulls and skeletons of everything from badgers to bats to bandicoots. It’s a taxidermist’s dream.

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Within this sprawling collection as well lurk undiscovered species, gathered on bygone expeditions to far-flung places a century and more ago, not yet thoroughly examined, or misidentified and pigeonholed as something they were not.

One of Kris’s passions—and extraordinary talents—is to discover new mammal species in collections such as the one he manages, and in those of other museums around the world. He has personally named dozens of new mammals, and has dozens more lined up, awaiting thorough documentation, confirmation, and suitable Latin names.

For this weekend’s show, Boyd got permission to “run wild” through the Smithsonian’s collection, pick out skeletons of obscure species (well, obscure to the rest of us), and test Kris’s identification acumen with a game of Name That Mammal.

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To hear how it turned out, tune in to National Geographic Weekend on the Salem Radio network, subscribe to the iTunes podcast, get it streamed to your iPhone or Blackberry with Stitcher Radio, or listen online.

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Kris invited me back to prowl the cabinets for more mammals with interesting tails, er, tales to tell, so stick with BlogWild for more!

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Photographs by Ford Cochran