Think all there is to taxidermy is stuffing an animal? Think again. Since the days of William Hornaday and Carl Akeley, taxidermy has been a scientific art: It requires practitioners not only to take accurate measurements and photos and make traces of the animals they'd like to mount, but to study the anatomy of those animals—all for the purpose of creating a specimen that is true to life. Read on for 11 things you might not know about the history, development, and practice of taxidermy.
1. The first person to use the word “taxidermy”—which comes from the Greek words taxis, or “arrangement,” and derma, or “skin”—was Louis Dufresne of the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. He wrote about it in the 1803 reference book Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle.
2. Taxidermy began in England in the early 19th century. An increased demand for leather meant that tanning—turning an animal's skin into preserved leather—became commonplace, and this made preservation of species catalogued by naturalists possible. Victorians often anthropomorphized their taxidermy, dressing stuffed animals in clothes and working them into tableaus like the ones created by Walter Potter. They were also obsessed with animals that were deemed "curiosities": deformed creatures with extra heads or legs.
3. Early proponents of taxidermy included Captain James Cook (he brought the first kangaroo skin back to London in 1771) and Charles Darwin, who would not have been allowed to travel as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle without that skill. He learned the trade from a freed Guyanese slave.
4. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy, so the models were often disfigured. In fact, mounts from those days skewed how we imagined creatures like the long-extinct dodo for years. Today, taxidermists can purchase a mannequin—which they can sculpt to achieve the position they want, then stretch and sew the skin over it—or create their own using old methods, like the Victorian-era process of winding the body shape out of string.
5. When Captain John Hunter sent the first pelt and sketch of a platypus back to England in 1798, many assumed it was a hoax—that someone had sewn a duck's bill to the coat of a beaver. George Shaw, author of The Naturalist's Miscellany: Or, Coloured Figures Of Natural Objects; Drawn and Described Immediately From Nature, reportedly took scissors to the skin to check for stitches.
6. The first American taxidermy competition was held in 1880. The top prize was awarded to taxidermist William Hornaday’s A Fight in the Tree-Tops, which depicted two male Bornean orangutans fighting over a female. The scene, which was scientifically accurate, changed the purpose of taxidermy—it inspired other taxidermists to aim for accuracy in their mounts, too.
Hornaday working on a lion mount. Photo Courtesy Taxidermy.net.
7. Dioramas like the ones in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) show animals in their painstakingly recreated natural habitats. Carl Akeley (for whom the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at AMNH is named) created the first habitat diorama in America—which portrayed muskrats—in 1889. The Milwaukee Public Museum still has it on display.
Akeley's obsessive method of preserving one elephant was detailed by his wife in her memoir, The Wilderness Lives Again. Melissa Milgrom sums it up in her book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy:
After the elephant was shot in the bush, he shaded it under a tarp to slow it from decomposing. After he photographed it for reference, he took detailed measurements with a tape measure and calipers, compensating for variations that make a dead animal different from a living one, such as deflated lungs, a limp trunk, and flaccid muscles. Next he cased the skull and leg bones in plaster and made a death mask of the face to capture its fine musculature. ... Akeley skinned animals like a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. All his incisions minimized future seams, so they'd disappear when the animal was assembled later. The legs were cut on the inside; the back was cut longitudinally along the spine; the head was cast, cut off. Once skinned, the elephant was fleshed ... It took Akeley and his team of porters four to five days to remove and prepare the thick, 2000 pound hide, using small knives so they would not mar the skin.
Back at the museum, Akeley tanned the hide in a 12-week-long process that turned the 2.5-inch thick hide into quarter-inch leather. He then made an outline of the elephant on the floor and built its internal frame—using steel, wood, and the elephant's bones—on top of it. He covered the frame with wire mesh, and then clay which he sculpted to recreate the elephant's muscles. After placing the skin on this form and making sure the clay accurately replicated "every fold and wrinkle," Milgrom says, he cast the form in plaster to make a lightweight mannequin, which is what he eventually stretched the skin over. This is the process he used to create the elephants in the Akeley African Hall of Mammals (below).
In addition to his obsessive eye for detail—he even invented the first portable movie camera to capture footage of animals in the wild, to better create more accurate taxidermy mounts—Akeley was also a badass: In one of many adventures, he killed a leopard with his bare hands.
8. Arsenic was one of taxidermy’s earliest preservatives. In those days, competition was fierce, so methods of preservation differed from taxidermist to taxidermist and were closely guarded—some even went to the grave without revealing their secrets.
9. In taxidermy, a specimen is an exact replica of the animal as it appeared in the wild; an example of a trophy is a deer head mounted on the wall.
10. Taxidermy competitions include a category called “Re-Creations,” where taxidermists attempt to create an animal without using any of its actual parts—making an eagle using turkey feathers, for example, or creating a realistic panda using bearskin—or even recreating extinct species based on scientific data.
11. When the rhino that belonged to Louis XIV and Louis XV was hacked to death by a revolutionary in 1793, its skin was varnished and stretched over a frame of wooden hoops. At that time, it was the largest animal to undergo a modern taxidermy process. The skin is on display at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris (below); its bones are displayed separately.