These collections consist of specimens belonging to the clades of craniates and vertebrates. They are systematically arranged according to clades. Sub-collections that have been assigned their own curatorship include the clades of extant fishes, reptiles and amphibians, birds and mammals. The vertebrate collections also contain specialist collections focusing on developmental biology or domestic animals.
The oldest specimens, including those from the Naturalienkabinett der Königlich Preussischen Akademie der Wissenschaften (Natural History Collection of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences) and the Königliche Kunstkammer (Royal Art Collection), date back to the early 18th century. The scope of the collections has always been global and not restricted to a particular region. Early trade with specimens of natural historical interest as well as many expeditions with a political, geographical, oceanographic, biological or ethnological focus resulted in a substantial expansion of the collections, mainly during the colonial era.
Due to their long history, these collections are particularly rich in types and specimens of rare or extinct animals. They also house specimens once owned by famous collectors such as Marcus E. Bloch (1723-1799), Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), Peter S. Pallas (1741-1811), Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838) and Ernst Mayr (1904-2005).