Extinct species history

Sadly illustrations sadly play an important role in understanding extinct species, as physical evidence is often sparse and incomplete. These illustrations help us understand the life and behaviour of iconic extinct species like the dodo and Tasmanian tiger, whilst informing our conservation of some of the most endangered species on earth today. 

Dodo illustrations 

The dodo 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.

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.

Dodo painting  with a guinea pig for scale

In ZSL Library we do have on permanent display an original painting of a dodo painted from life by Roelandt Savery. 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.

'Dodo in landscape with animals', Roelandt Savery painting

Passenger pigeon illustration 

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 painting

Tasmanian tiger illustrations 

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.

History of the thylacine

Thylacine painting
Tasmanian tiger painting

Ivory-billed woodpecker

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!

 Ivory-billed woodpecker painting

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. 

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 angelsharksZSL works with partners to secure the future of angelsharks across their range.

Angel shark painting

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.

Hihi painting

Hihi conservation

Male hihi close-up black head with a white streak, and yellow streaks along body
Bringing hihi back from the brink of extinction

Hihi conservation

How this tiny bird is helping reframe wildlife conservation translocation programmes globally.

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.

Restoring wildlife globally

  • Partula affinis checked over at ZSL London Zoo by Dave Clarke, snail is sitting on his finger
    Restoring Polynesian heritage

    Partula snail conservation

    We saved the remaining Polynesian snails before they could be wiped out forever, and we have been breeding them ever since to restore their precious ecosystem and place in history. 

  • ZSL anti-poaching patrol in Dja reserve Cameroon
    Protecting a UNESCO World Heritage Site

    Dja conservation complex

    Empowering local people to protect their home and the wildlife they live alongside.

  • Hazel dormouse close-up, dark circular eyes with rosy orange fur
    Reintroducing the hazel dormouse to British countryside

    Hazel dormouse

    By working together with our conservation partners, we've managed to successfully reintroduce over 1,000 dormice

  • Mountain chicken frog sitting on forest floor

    Mountain chicken frog conservation

    Creating routes to recovery through cutting-edge scientific research and breeding at London Zoo.

  • Greater one horned rhino in lake in Nepal

    Greater one-horned rhino conservation

    Together with local communities and our partners, we have established anti-poaching patrols which are key to recovering numbers in Nepal.

  • Our projects