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6 Animals Portrayed Incorrectly in Early Taxonomic Drawings

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In the early days of exploration, scientists and species seekers had to rely on illustrations—often drawn from written descriptions or based on dead specimens—to bring their discoveries to life. Given their varied source material, “it’s remarkable how many illustrations were correct,” says Tom Baione, Harold Boeschenstein Director of the Department of Library Services at the American Museum of Natural History and editor of Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. But sometimes, an artist’s depiction of a creature was a little off, as you can see from the examples below. (A few of these illustrations are currently featured in an exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History inspired by its namesake book.)

1. Octopus


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This cephalopod appeared in Conrad Gessner’s Historia Animalium, a five-volume series published between 1551 and 1558. “The thing that always freaks me out about the octopus is just how well it’s figured,” Baione says. For printing, an artist would have taken a sketch and transferred it onto a woodblock—a very difficult task. “The idea that somebody could carve away all the wood and just leave tiny wooden slivers to represent these delicate lines delineating the animal—just the idea of doing that sounds complicated,” Baione says. But one tiny thing about the octopus is off: Cephalopods have horizontal pupils, regardless of their orientation. This indicates that the artist probably sketched the likeness of the animal from a dead specimen.

2. Rhinoceros

© AMNH\D. Finnin

Gessner worked with a number of different artists to create images for his Animalium volumes, and in some cases, used pre-existing woodcuts, including this one created by Albrecht Dürer in 1515. Of course, Durer and Gessner probably never actually saw a rhinoceros. “A visual game of telephone is, to some degree, what the artists were dealing with in the 16th century,” Baione says. “Durer may have worked from other artists' renditions and some written or verbal information about what the rhino’s prominent features were. If you look at a real rhinoceros, especially if you see it move, its body does look like it has plates hanging on it. It’s not so remarkable to think that someone might’ve been given information that led to the creation of the image that was made into a woodblock.”

As time went by, the artistic renderings of rhinos in natural history books got more realistic: “More people [were] seeing it and saying, ‘Oh, it doesn’t have a horn up there,’” Baione says. “‘It doesn’t have a beard. Its legs aren’t really like that. Its tail doesn’t have so much hair on it. It really has two horns, not just one horn. The horn’s not scaly. The ears are smaller.’ So eventually, it was refined until it was a much more realistic illustration. And before long, specimens of rhinos—living and preserved—made their way to Europe.”

3. Walrus

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This sketch, also from Gessner’s Historia Animalium, is another good example of what happens when things get lost in translation. “We know that a walrus is a four-limbed creature,” Baione says. “So they show him with four limbs, but I guess because the description from someone who had seen one didn’t make it intact to the artist, these fins are figured in Gessner as separate from the four limbs, rather than part of the limbs.” The sketch of the walrus (which doesn’t appear in the book Natural Histories or the exhibition) is extraordinary for another reason: The walrus is an Arctic creature and, at that time, “there was not a lot of Arctic exploration going on,” Baione says. “A lot of people who saw arctic animals were on a one-way trip, if you know what I mean. It’s amazing that at that date, news of such a creature made its way all the way down to Switzerland, to Zurich, where Gessner worked.”

4. Puffer Fish

© AMNH\D. Finnin

These sketches, which appeared in Louis Renard’s 1719 book Poissons, écrevisses et crabes, de diverses couleurs et figures extraordinaires were drawn by artists from specimens. The artists purposefully embellished the fish with vibrant colors, strange patterns, and human-like expressions. The puffer fish appears almost angry. “I really like the expression on the puffer fish,” Baione says. “Appreciating his unusual features takes a closer look – which is what this exhibit allows– the book illustrations are greatly enlarged, making it easier to see his subtle expression and coloring—he looks like he’s going to jump off the page and perhaps bite you!”

5. Mandrill

© AMNH\D. Finnin

This illustration, which appeared in Johann Christian Daniel von Schreber’s 19th century book Mammals Illustrated From Nature, With Descriptions, is fairly accurate—but still posed in a very human, non-monkey-like way. “We hoped the mandrill shows how anthropomorphized these images were,” Baione says. “Some of them are almost laughably anthropomorphized, so we opted not to include them. We thought the mandrill was handsome and colorful, with his sensitive, wise expression.” The primate may also have a case of man hands. “His hands should’ve been a little more like his feet in the illustration, but so it goes,” Baione says. “It looks like the mandrill impersonator forgot his mandrill gloves.”

6. Two-Toed Sloth

© AMNH\D. Finnin

This illustration comes from Albert Seba’s four volume Thesaurus, published in the 18th century. “Seba worked in Amsterdam and he’s most famous for his collecting,” Baione says. “He was an apothecary, so he was looking to obtain and identify natural substances—either the gallbladder of a lizard or the seed of some plant—and by experimenting with them, he was able to create salves and tinctures and ointments that might relieve symptoms of illnesses—or, just as likely, make them worse.”

Seba would head down to the docks and barter with sick, returning sailors, trading his cures for their unusual specimens, which probably included this two-toed sloth. Because Seba’s artists were drawing from preserved specimens and live animals, they could generally accurately depict anatomical features, but not behaviors—this sloth is shown moving through the trees upright, while in reality, sloths hang upside down.

This armchair naturalism had other drawbacks, too: “People off in the far corners of the world knew, by the 18th century, that these funny bearded European characters loved strange stuff,” Baione says. “If you could show them something that you knew they hadn’t seen before—because you created it—then they might pay a high price or be very happy and reward you in some way. In some cases, Seba collected and illustrated a lot of creatures that we know didn’t and couldn’t have existed.”

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Big Questions
Do Cats Fart?
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Certain philosophical questions can invade even the most disciplined of minds. Do aliens exist? Can a soul ever be measured? Do cats fart?

While the latter may not have weighed heavily on some of history’s great brains, it’s certainly no less deserving of an answer. And in contrast to existential queries, there’s a pretty definitive response: Yes, they do. We just don’t really hear it.

According to veterinarians who have realized their job sometimes involves answering inane questions about animals passing gas, cats have all the biological hardware necessary for a fart: a gastrointestinal system and an anus. When excess air builds up as a result of gulping breaths or gut bacteria, a pungent cloud will be released from their rear ends. Smell a kitten’s butt sometime and you’ll walk away convinced that cats fart.

The discretion, or lack of audible farts, is probably due to the fact that cats don’t gulp their food like dogs do, leading to less air accumulating in their digestive tract.

So, yes, cats do fart. But they do it with the same grace and stealth they use to approach everything else. Think about that the next time you blame the dog.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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science
2017 Ig Nobel Prizes Celebrate Research on How Crocodiles Affect Gambling and Other Odd Studies
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The Ig Nobel Prizes are back, and this year's winning selection of odd scientific research topics is as weird as ever. As The Guardian reports, the 27th annual awards of highly improbable studies "that first make people laugh, then make them think" were handed out on September 14 at a theater at Harvard University. The awards, sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research, honor research you never would have thought someone would take the time (or the funding) to study, much less would be published.

The 2017 highlights include a study on whether cats can be both a liquid and a solid at the same time and one on whether the presence of a live crocodile can impact the behavior of gamblers. Below, we present the winners from each of the 10 categories, each weirder and more delightful than the last.

PHYSICS

"For using fluid dynamics to probe the question 'Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?'"

Winner: Marc-Antoine Fardin

Study: "On the Rheology of Cats," published in Rheology Bulletin [PDF]

ECONOMICS

"For their experiments to see how contact with a live crocodile affects a person's willingness to gamble."

Winners: Matthew J. Rockloff and Nancy Greer

Study: "Never Smile at a Crocodile: Betting on Electronic Gaming Machines is Intensified by Reptile-Induced Arousal," published in the Journal of Gambling Studies

ANATOMY

"For his medical research study 'Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?'"

Winner: James A. Heathcote

Study: "Why Do Old Men Have Big Ears?" published in the BMJ

BIOLOGY

"For their discovery of a female penis, and a male vagina, in a cave insect."

Winners: Kazunori Yoshizawa, Rodrigo L. Ferreira, Yoshitaka Kamimura, and Charles Lienhard (who delivered their acceptance speech via video from inside a cave)

Study: "Female Penis, Male Vagina and Their Correlated Evolution in a Cave Insect," published in Current Biology

FLUID DYNAMICS

"For studying the dynamics of liquid-sloshing, to learn what happens when a person walks backwards while carrying a cup of coffee."

Winner: Jiwon Han

Study: "A Study on the Coffee Spilling Phenomena in the Low Impulse Regime," published in Achievements in the Life Sciences

NUTRITION

"For the first scientific report of human blood in the diet of the hairy-legged vampire bat."

Winners: Fernanda Ito, Enrico Bernard, and Rodrigo A. Torres

Study: "What is for Dinner? First Report of Human Blood in the Diet of the Hairy-Legged Vampire Bat Diphylla ecaudata," published in Acta Chiropterologica

MEDICINE

"For using advanced brain-scanning technology to measure the extent to which some people are disgusted by cheese."

Winners: Jean-Pierre Royet, David Meunier, Nicolas Torquet, Anne-Marie Mouly, and Tao Jiang

Study: "The Neural Bases of Disgust for Cheese: An fMRI Study," published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience

COGNITION

"For demonstrating that many identical twins cannot tell themselves apart visually."

Winners: Matteo Martini, Ilaria Bufalari, Maria Antonietta Stazi, and Salvatore Maria Aglioti

Study: "Is That Me or My Twin? Lack of Self-Face Recognition Advantage in Identical Twins," published in PLOS One

OBSTETRICS

"For showing that a developing human fetus responds more strongly to music that is played electromechanically inside the mother's vagina than to music that is played electromechanically on the mother's belly."

Winners: Marisa López-Teijón, Álex García-Faura, Alberto Prats-Galino, and Luis Pallarés Aniorte

Study: "Fetal Facial Expression in Response to Intravaginal Music Emission,” published in Ultrasound

PEACE PRIZE

"For demonstrating that regular playing of a didgeridoo is an effective treatment for obstructive sleep apnoea and snoring."

Winners: Milo A. Puhan, Alex Suarez, Christian Lo Cascio, Alfred Zahn, Markus Heitz, and Otto Braendli

Study: "Didgeridoo Playing as Alternative Treatment for Obstructive Sleep Apnoea Syndrome: Randomised Controlled Trial," published by the BMJ

Congratulations, all.

[h/t The Guardian]

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