17 Excellent Animal Illustrations from a 16th Century Book

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 unless otherwise noted.

Watch How a Bioluminescence Expert Catches a Giant Squid

Giant squid have been the object of fascination for millennia; they may have even provided the origin for the legendary Nordic sea monsters known as the Kraken. But no one had captured them in their natural environment on video until 2012, when marine biologist and bioluminescence expert Edith Widder snagged the first-ever images off Japan's Ogasawara Islands [PDF]. Widder figured out that previous dives—which tended to bring down a ton of gear and bright lights—were scaring all the creatures away. (Slate compares it to "the equivalent of coming into a darkened theater and shining a spotlight at the audience.")

In this clip from BBC Earth Unplugged, Widder explains how the innovative camera-and-lure combo she devised, known as the Eye-in-the-Sea, finally accomplished the job by using red lights (which most deep-sea creatures can't see) and an electronic jellyfish (called the e-jelly) with a flashy light show just right to lure in predators like Architeuthis dux. "I've tried a bunch of different things over the years to try to be able to talk to the animals," Widder says in the video, "and with the e-jelly, I feel like I'm finally making some progress."

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

Big Questions
Why Are There No Snakes in Ireland?

Legend tells of St. Patrick using the power of his faith to drive all of Ireland’s snakes into the sea. It’s an impressive image, but there’s no way it could have happened.

There never were any snakes in Ireland, partly for the same reason that there are no snakes in Hawaii, Iceland, New Zealand, Greenland, or Antarctica: the Emerald Isle is, well, an island.

Eightofnine via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Once upon a time, Ireland was connected to a larger landmass. But that time was an ice age that kept the land far too chilly for cold-blooded reptiles. As the ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, glaciers melted, pouring even more cold water into the now-impassable expanse between Ireland and its neighbors.

Other animals, like wild boars, lynx, and brown bears, managed to make it across—as did a single reptile: the common lizard. Snakes, however, missed their chance.

The country’s serpent-free reputation has, somewhat perversely, turned snake ownership into a status symbol. There have been numerous reports of large pet snakes escaping or being released. As of yet, no species has managed to take hold in the wild—a small miracle in itself.

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


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