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17 Excellent Animal Illustrations from a 16th Century Book

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Between 1551 and 1558, Swiss doctor and naturalist Conrad Gessner published his magnum opus, the five-volume, 4500-page Historiae animalium, which became the period's most widely read natural history collection. Combining the work of those who came before him, like Aristotle, Pliny, and the unknown author of Physiologus, and making use of both verbal descriptions and illustrations of animals from explorers and other naturalists, Gessner attempted to catalogue all known beasts—even ones we know today to be mythological. "He often assured his readers ... that his friends' testimony was reliable, as they had personally eyeballed even the most ferocious beasts, including lions and crocodiles," writes Michon Scott at Strange Science. "When [Gessner] doubted the accuracy of the opinions he relayed in his own writings, or the validity of the illustrations he included, he prudently said so. Of the multi-headed hydra, for instance, he observed, 'ears, tongues, noses, and faces are inconsistent with the nature of serpents.'"

Historiae animalium was a standout because of the sheer number of its illustrations, which were created using woodcuts; Gessner and the artists he worked with got some animals very close to right, while others are entirely off the mark. “A visual game of telephone is, to some degree, what the artists were dealing with in the 16th century,” Tom Baione, Director of the Department of Library Services at the American Museum of Natural History, told us when we first looked at some illustrations from Historiae animalium last year. Here are a few more illustrations for you to admire.

1. Beaver

Beavers do have pretty gnarly incisors—they're harder on the front than on the back, which is what creates the sharp edge that allows these semi-aquatic animals to chisel away at wood—but somehow, they don't look as terrifying on the actual animal.

2. Porcupine

Every species in the porcupine family—approximately two dozen of them—has a coat of quills to use as a defense mechanism. In real life, though, they don't look quite so sinister.

3. Unicorn

The first written description of a unicorn—which, unfortunately, is not real—appeared in the writings of Greek physician Ctesius, and it doesn't resemble the animal we've come to think of at all:

There are in India certain wild asses which are as large as horses, and larger. Their bodies are white, their heads dark red, and their eyes dark blue. They have a horn on the forehead which is about a foot and a half in length. The base of this horn, for some two hands'-breadth above the brow, is pure white; the upper part is sharp and of a vivid crimson; and the remainder, or middle portion, is black. Those who drink out of these horns, made into drinking vessels, are not subject, they say, to convulsions or to the holy disease [epilepsy]. Indeed, they are immune even to poisons…

This is the only way to capture them: when they take their young to pasture, you must surround them with many men and horses. They will not desert their offspring and fights with horns, teeth and heels; and they kill many horses and men. They are themselves brought down by arrows and spears. They cannot be caught alive.

In the fascinating book A Natural History of Unicorns, Chris Lavers examines all the animals that could have possibly been unicorns, and how the creature went from that first description to the beautiful, one-horned horse we think of now.

4. Fox

The drawing is a little more wolf- or coyote-like than an actual red fox, but cute in its own way.

5. Camel

This illustration seems to show a Bactrian camel. These two-humped ungulates are much rarer than their single-humped dromedary cousin—in fact, they're critically endangered. This illustration would be more accurate if the beast had more fur and higher humps.

6. Tiger

Wikimedia Commons

Sure, tigers are cute, but they're not this cute. While the stripes are kind of close, the happy smile, high and slender build, and fur at the end of the tail are anything but.

7. Hedgehog

Fact: No illustration could ever be as adorable as the real thing, and this drawing definitely isn't. It makes hedgehogs look shocked and a little curmudgeonly.

8. Elephant

We should all be thankful that elephants aren't this terrifying in real life. Look at that trunk!

9. Armadillo

There are 20 species of armadillo; according to National Geographic, and all of them but one live in Latin America. It's unclear which kind of armadillo this is, but it looks like it just played a wicked joke on one of its brethren.

10. Rooster

One word sums this illustration up, and that word is "Ahh!"

11. Sea Turtle

I wouldn't want to swim next to one of these guys—look at those teeth! In real life, sea turtles don't have teeth; instead, they use their beaks to eat, and stiff, gnarly-looking papillae help direct the food to the stomach.

12. Giraffe

If you'd never seen a giraffe before, and someone described it to you, you might draw its ossicones—which are actually cartilage covered in skin—as more typical horns, too. Fun fact: People once called giraffes "camel-leopards" because, thanks to the small hump on the back and the spotted coat, people thought they were a combination of camels and leopards!

13. Crocodile

This croc looks more like a red-eyed crocodile skink—at least around the eyes.

14. Ostrich

The color's not right—those feathers should be darker!—and the beak is a little too thick, but otherwise, this is a pretty good portrait of the world's largest (and heaviest!) bird.

15. Hippopotamus

Hippos are much stouter than this illustration shows, and they prefer to spend most of their time in the water, not walk on it. Hippos and crocs do sometimes face off in the wild, though it probably doesn't go quite like this illustration shows.

16. Whales

Adventures on the high seas must have been terrifying if you thought this was what awaited you.

17. Lion

Lion manes are definitely beautiful, but they're not this well groomed.

All images courtesy of NLM.gov unless otherwise noted.

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Why Can Parrots Talk and Other Birds Can't?
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If you've ever seen a pirate movie (or had the privilege of listening to this avian-fronted metal band), you're aware that parrots have the gift of human-sounding gab. Their brains—not their beaks—might be behind the birds' ability to produce mock-human voices, the Sci Show's latest video explains below.

While parrots do have articulate tongues, they also appear to be hardwired to mimic other species, and to create new vocalizations. The only other birds that are capable of vocal learning are hummingbirds and songbirds. While examining the brains of these avians, researchers noted that their brains contain clusters of neurons, which they've dubbed song nuclei. Since other birds don't possess song nuclei, they think that these structures probably play a key role in vocal learning.

Parrots might be better at mimicry than hummingbirds and songbirds thanks to a variation in these neurons: a special shell layer that surrounds each one. Birds with larger shell regions appear to be better at imitating other creatures, although it's still unclear why.

Learn more about parrot speech below (after you're done jamming out to Hatebeak).

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Extinct Penguin Species Was the Size of an Adult Human
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A penguin that waddled across the ice 60 million years ago would have dwarfed the king and emperor penguins of today, according to the Associated Press. As indicated by fossils recently uncovered in New Zealand, the extinct species measured 5 feet 10 inches while swimming, surpassing the height of an average adult man.

The discovery, which the authors say is the most complete skeleton of a penguin this size to date, is laid out in a study recently published in Nature Communications. When standing on land, the penguin would have measured 5 feet 3 inches, still a foot taller than today’s largest penguins at their maximum height. Researchers estimated its weight to have been about 223 pounds.

Kumimanu biceae, a name that comes from Maori words for “monster" and "bird” and the name of one researcher's mother, last walked the Earth between 56 million and 60 million years ago. That puts it among the earliest ancient penguins, which began appearing shortly after large aquatic reptiles—along with the dinosaurs—went extinct, leaving room for flightless carnivorous birds to enter the sea.

The prehistoric penguin was a giant, even compared to other penguin species of the age, but it may not have been the biggest penguin to ever live. A few years ago, paleontologists discovered 40-million-year-old fossils they claimed belonged to a penguin that was 6 feet 5 inches long from beak to tail. But that estimate was based on just a couple bones, so its actual size may have varied.

[h/t AP]

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