The collections in the Zoology section of the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt (HLMD) have their origins in the “Natural History Cabinet” of Duke Ludwig X (1753–1830), who later became Grand Duke Ludwig I. The geology and mineralogy collections were separated from the zoological material in 1847, and the paleontological objects were also displayed separately from 1893 onwards. The Alfred Messel building was therefore planned and built with two entirely separate exhibition areas. These were the Zoology section, occupying the same level as the main hall, and the History of Life on Earth section, housed one floor above.
Johann Jakob Kaup, who was curator in the 19th century, was keen to extend the collection and regularly acquired new objects. The HLMD came to own many collections by this way, including most of the Australian marsupials, the skeleton of a Minke Whale and many prepared specimens of species that are now extinct. In the 20th century, some far-reaching research expeditions (e.g., the Xarifa expeditions) led to the acquisition of further specimens. The zoological collections now cover a representative range of mammal, bird, mollusc (snails, bivalves) and coral species. All the other groups are also represented in the collections, though by much less varied ranges of specimens.
A recurring topic of the zoological exhibition is the constant change in nature, including the change of species and diversity. Species are no unalterable units but are prone to modifications in the course of evolution. Crucial factors and events of evolution are shown with the aid of examples, objects and new media in a demonstrative manner. The presentation of more than 100 skeletons gives visitors the opportunity for comparison and hence to observe and comprehend the modification of the common bauplan of all vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals). The diversity of existing species is demonstrated by the exhibition of more than 800 objects representing nearly all groups of animals compiled in one large wall-mounted showcase. Objects of extinct species are opposed to objects from existing species to demonstrate the change and impermanence of species diversity.
In the exhibition area “Change of Diversity” the HLMD shows some precious objects of recently extinct species. They comprise mammals such as the quagga (Equus quagga quagga), the thylacine (Thylacinus cynoephalus) and the Steller's sea cow (Hydrodamalis gigas), as well as a harlequin toad (Atolepus vogli) and several bird species, such as a paradise parrot and a Rodrigues solitair. Originally the paradise parrot (Psephotus pulcherrimus) was a common species in Australia. The reason for its relatively quick extinction is still unclear. The last confirmed sighting of one individual is dated from 14th September 1927. The Rodrigues solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), a large flightless bird, lived on the island Rodrigues, east of Madagascar. Like their next relatives from Mauritius (Dodo, Raphus cucullatus) and Réunion (Réunion ibis, Raphus solitarius) these birds were easy prey for humans and the predators they introduced to the island due to their flightlessness. Presumably the last Rodrigues solitaire was extirpated between 1730 and 1760. Very few bone fragments in museums and some paintings and drawings are the last memory of this species.
When they were built, the Darmstadt dioramas were modern and revolutionary in their style, and they now have enormous historical value internationally. The ten zoological dioramas were planned during the construction of the museum building that opened in 1906 and were developed in close collaboration by the architect, Alfred Messel, and Gottlieb von Koch, the curator of zoology at the time. Taxidermist Karl Küsthardt began building the dioramas, or “Tiergeographische Gruppen” as they were called, in 1898. While the dioramas of European habitats include some landscape elements constructed in detail, the four dioramas representing South America, Africa, Asia and Australia & New Zealand are based on more schematic landscapes, each one presenting the fauna of an entire continent. This abstract form of presentation did not aim to reproduce the natural environment and was considered revolutionary at the time. Although some damage occurred during the Second World War, the Darmstadt dioramas are still largely in their original state. They were now restored with great care when the building was renovated to maintain them in their original state.
The exhibition on human evolution has received a great deal of attention for its hominid reconstructions.
The HLMD displays lifelike head reconstructions of the most important species of pre-humans – Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Australopithecus anamensis, Australopithecus afarensis, Kenyanthropus platyops, Australopithecus africanus and Paranthropus boisei – ancient humans – Homo rudolfensis and Homo habilis – and early humans Homo erectus and Neanderthals. These were made by Wildlife Art (W. Schnaubelt & N. Kieser) with scientific support from the museum and in cooperation with GEO magazine. The latest addition – Sahelanthropus – is thought by many to be the oldest pre-human and is one of the few finds from outside Africa’s Great Rift Valley. However, some scientists think that Sahelanthropus should instead be seen as a relative of the gorilla or chimpanzee or as the last common ancestor of humans and chimpanzees.