Lost and the Rare - illustrations of extinct and endangered animals

by Ann Sylph on

Both science and art are so vital to human culture. The value of art in communicating science is increasingly being recognised and valued. Arts and sciences help people reconnect with nature and to take action to protect it.


Earlier this month we held a special display of some ‘sciart’ illustrations from historic books which depict endangered or extinct animals. We are too late to save species which are extinct but ZSL is actively trying to conserve some of the rare species we featured. In the cases of the rare species, I have highlighted how these publications helped in informing conservation action to stop the animals going extinct.


This blog is aimed at those people who could not visit the display, those that did visit and want to revisit the wonderful illustrations and those wanting to find out more about how ZSL is working to conserve these rare species.


To begin, I thought I would feature the extinct animals, almost all of these were still living when described and illustrated in these books. They have become extinct since these books were published. These historic records are so useful in describing these animals and often contain so much detail about the animal itself as well as information about their then distribution. These details and knowing why animals have gone extinct can help to inform conservation actions now, we can all learn from previous experience and knowledge.


The first animal is the dodo which is thought to have become extinct in 1662 so this image and description were published following the extinction of this bird - in Volume 4 of Gleanings of natural history, exhibiting figures of quadrupeds, birds, insects and plants, &c., most of which have not, till now, been either figured or described ... by George Edwards. London :  Royal College of Physicians, 1758-1764.


Colour illustration of a large dodo in profile with a smaller guinea pig


I was puzzled as to why the dodo is accompanied by a guinea pig, they came from very different parts of the world and would not meet in the wild. In the published text George Edwards explained that he used the guinea pig to help with a sense of scale to show the large size of the dodo.


In ZSL Library we do have on permanent display an original painting of a dodo painted from life by Roelandt Savery, this was highlighted in a previous display and blog about original artworks depicting extinct and endangered animals  It is a particularly unusual image as the bird is shown from the rear so you can clearly see the tail feathers. The few other paintings of the dodo from life show the bird in profile.


The Passenger pigeon is also extinct. Martha, the last passenger pigeon, died in Cincinnati Zoo on 1 September 1914.  Mark Catesby saw them in huge numbers, in his eyewitness account during the 1720s `In Virginia I have seen fly in such continued trains three days successively, that there was not the least interval in loosing sight of them...’ These illustrations of a male and a female passenger pigeon are in Les pigeons par Madame Knip, née Pauline de Courcelles. - 2e éd. Paris :  Knip, [1808-43].

Passenger pigeon

Passenger pigeon

These thylacine or Tasmanian tiger are lithographic prints by Henry Constantine Richter in  Volume 1 of Mammals of Australia by John Gould, London : Published by the author, 1845-63. John Gould spent two years in Australia, publishing his magnificent folio volumes on mammals and birds of Australia once he had returned to the UK. Thylacine were officially declared as extinct in 1936 but we do have a 2014 book in ZSL Library in  which the author asks readers to let him know of any sightings. One of the ZSL Library Team checked a few weeks ago and so far no-one has contacted him with any confirmed sightings. Do take look at another of our blogs to find out more about thylacine at ZSL London Zoo

Close-up colour illustration of a wolf-like thylacine head

Side view of two thylacine, colour lithograph

 Ivory-billed woodpecker are thought to be extinct with the last confirmed sighting in 1944. This print is from Volume 4 of The birds of America, from drawings made in the United States and their territories, by John James Audubon. New York :  Lockwood, 1839. ZSL does not have the most expensive book in the world – the huge (and heavy) double elephant folio of Audubon’s birds of America in which he attempted to depict the birds life size. Our edition measures 28cm in height, I am so grateful as it is much easier to handle and move!

Colour illustration of three extinct ivory billed woodpeckers on a tree trunk


Another of our blogs is about Mark Catesby’s landmark work, the first published book on the natural history of North America. We highlight the extinct Carolina parakeet, as well as the passenger pigeon and the ivory-billed woodpecker  The last confirmed wild sighting of a Carolina parakeet was in 1910, but the last known Carolina parakeet died in captivity in 1918. Catesby also contains a description and print of a hawksbill turtle, these are now critically endangered. ZSL is trying to find out more about these turtles in Diego Garcia, British Indian Ocean Territory. This research should help to inform future conservations actions.


The oldest book I am featuring is  De historia piscium libri quatuor ... [by] Francis  Willughby  and John Ray, Oxonii :  e Theatro Sheldoniano, 1686, containing a beautiful engraving of now critically endangered angelsharks. ZSL works with partners to secure the future of angelsharks across their range  Jo Barker’s blog describes how finding a book in ZSL Library with historic information about angelsharks inspired a conservation project in Wales 

Uncoloured engraving showing an angelshark


The hihi stitchbird is classed as vulnerable by the IUCN and listed as nationally endangered by New Zealand’s (NZ) Department of Conservation (DOC).  This illustration by John Gerrard Keulemans is in A history of the birds of New Zealand – 2nd ed., by Walter Lawry Buller, London :  by the Author, 1888. ZSL’s Institute of Zoology has been instrumental in a reintroduction projects for these birds.

Colour illustration of a pair of black, white and yellow hihi or stitchbirds


My final rare species to feature in this blog is the snail Partula nodosa which is extinct in the wild. ZSL has been involved in a conservation breeding and reintroduction programme for this species Unfortunately I have not been able to include the illustration in Studies on the variation, distribution, and evolution of the genus Partula : the species inhabiting Tahiti  by Henry Edward Crampton. Washington : Carnegie Institution, 1916. This landmark work depicts and describes the wide diversity of these snails at that time providing a baseline. Comparing this information to later surveys showed that the populations had decreased dramatically and conservation actions were needed. The volume will be on display in ZSL Library throughout the rest of 2019.


ZSL Staff, Volunteers, Members, Fellows and Patrons can visit the Library on production of their membership cards, whilst other members of the public just need some photographic ID and proof of address.

ZSL Library is a wonderful and unique information resource about animals and their conservation – we use our collection to inspire, inform and empower people to stop wild animals going extinct. And of course information is vitally important in conservation.

Our collections can be explored and discovered in a variety of ways –


The IUCN Red List https://www.iucnredlist.org/ was used in this blog to establish the conservation status of the animals.

Please note ZSL Library & Archives will be open on Friday 20 December then close until Monday 13 January 2020.

Season's greetings



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