12 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Taxidermy
Think all there is to taxidermy is stuffing an animal? Think again. Since the days of William Hornaday and Carl Akeley, taxidermy has been a scientific art: It requires practitioners not only to take accurate measurements and photos and make traces of the animals they'd like to mount, but to study the anatomy of those animals—all for the purpose of creating a specimen that is true to life. Read on for 12 things you might not know about the history, development, and practice of taxidermy.
1. The word taxidermy is derived from the Greek words taxis and derma.
They mean “arrangement” and “skin,” respectively. Some say the first person to use the word taxidermy was Louis Dufresne of the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris, who wrote about it in the 1803 reference book Nouveau Dictionnaire d’Histoire Naturelle, but according to Merriam-Webster, the word appeared at least three years earlier in an ornithology book written by a zoologist named François Marie Daudin.
2. Modern taxidermy took off in England in the early 19th century.
Humans have been preserving animals for thousands of years—just look at ancient Egypt's mummified cats. But as conservator Amandine Péquignot writes in The History of Taxidermy: Clues for Preservation [PDF], they "should not be regarded as true taxidermy," because taxidermy and mummification had different goals and techniques—for instance, “Mummies were created in a religious context, unlike taxidermy, which developed from a curiosity about nature.”
According to Péquignot, taxidermy began to emerge in the 16th century, when Europeans started to mount the skins of various animals and developed methods and chemicals to preserve them. As the years went on, better methods emerged, and by the 19th century, taxidermy was well established in scientific circles.
In 1851, London hosted the Great Exhibition, which featured around 100,000 objects from over 15,000 contributors—including a lot of taxidermy. The Indian displays included a taxidermied elephant (though that animal was actually an African elephant found in a nearby museum). Also present was J.A. Hancock’s taxidermy, which the Official Catalogue noted “will go far towards raising the art of taxidermy to a level with other arts which have hitherto held higher pretensions.” And it did—in the years following the Great Exhibition, taxidermy became a very popular pastime; even a young Theodore Roosevelt took lessons. It got to the point that Victorians would anthropomorphize their taxidermy, dressing stuffed animals in clothes and working them into tableaus like the ones created by Walter Potter. They would also sometimes produce creatures with extra heads or legs.
3. Taxidermy was used on Captain James Cook's expeditions.
Captain James Cook embarked on a number of exploratory expeditions around the South Pacific, where taxidermy was used to preserve animal specimens. For example, according to Royal Museums Greenwich, it’s said that the captain brought the first kangaroo skin—which was supposedly killed by a dog belonging to naturalist Sir Joseph Banks—to London in 1771. Bird specimens obtained on Cook's expeditions can be seen at institutions like the UK's Natural History Museum.
4. Charles Darwin learned taxidermy from a formerly enslaved Guyanese man named John Edmonstone.
John Edmonstone had learned the skill from naturalist Charles Waterton, who brought him on expeditions. Edmonstone charged Darwin a guinea an hour to learn his services; Darwin wrote to his sister that Edmonstone "gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently." Without the skills taught to him by Edmonstone, Darwin likely wouldn't have been able to nab a job on the HMS Beagle.
5. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy.
This meant that the models were often disfigured. In fact, mounts from those days skewed how we imagined creatures like the long-extinct dodo for years. (The only soft tissue specimen of a dodo, which resides in the collections at UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, continues to teach us new things about the bird.) Today, taxidermists can purchase a mannequin—which they can sculpt to achieve the position they want, then stretch and sew the skin over it—or create their own using old methods, like the Victorian-era process of winding the body shape out of string.
6. People thought the first platypus specimen was a taxidermied hoax.
When Captain John Hunter sent the first pelt and sketch of a platypus back to England in 1798, many assumed it was a hoax—that someone had sewn a duck's bill to the coat of a beaver. George Shaw, author of The Naturalist's Miscellany: Or, Coloured Figures Of Natural Objects; Drawn and Described Immediately From Nature, reportedly took scissors to the skin to check for stitches.
7. The first American taxidermy competition was put on by the American Society of Taxidermists in 1880.
First place was awarded to taxidermist William Temple Hornaday’s A Fight in the Tree-Tops, which depicted two male Bornean orangutans fighting over a female. According to Melissa Milgrom in her book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, the scene, which was scientifically accurate, changed the purpose of taxidermy—it inspired other taxidermists to aim for accuracy in their mounts, too.
8. Many dioramas at natural history museums show animals in painstakingly recreated natural habitats.
Carl Akeley (for whom the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at New York's American Museum of Natural History is named) created the first habitat diorama in America—which portrayed muskrats—in 1889 for the Milwaukee Public Museum.
Akeley's obsessive method of preserving one elephant was detailed by his wife in her memoir, The Wilderness Lives Again. Milgrom sums it up in Still Life:
“After the elephant was shot in the bush, he shaded it under a tarp to slow it from decomposing. After he photographed it for reference, he took detailed measurements with a tape measure and calipers, compensating for variations that make a dead animal different from a living one, such as deflated lungs, a limp trunk, and flaccid muscles. Next he cased the skull and leg bones in plaster and made a death mask of the face to capture its fine musculature. ... Akeley skinned animals like a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. All his incisions minimized future seams, so they'd disappear when the animal was assembled later. The legs were cut on the inside; the back was cut longitudinally along the spine; the head was cast, cut off. Once skinned, the elephant was fleshed ... It took Akeley and his team of porters four to five days to remove and prepare the thick, 2000-pound hide, using small knives so they would not mar the skin.”
Back at the museum, Akeley tanned the hide in a 12-week-long process that turned the 2.5-inch thick skin into quarter-inch leather. He then made an outline of the elephant on the floor and built its internal frame—using steel, wood, and the elephant's bones—on top of it. He covered the frame with wire mesh, and then clay which he sculpted to recreate the elephant's muscles. After placing the skin on this form and making sure the clay accurately replicated "every fold and wrinkle," Milgrom says, he cast the form in plaster to make a lightweight mannequin, which is what he eventually stretched the skin over. This is the process he used to create the elephants in the Akeley African Hall of Mammals.
In addition to his obsessive eye for detail—he even invented the first portable movie camera to capture footage of animals in the wild, to better create more accurate taxidermy mounts—Akeley was also a badass: In one of many adventures, he killed a leopard with his bare hands.
9. Arsenic was one of taxidermy’s earliest preservatives.
In those days, competition was fierce, so methods of preservation differed from taxidermist to taxidermist and were closely guarded—some even went to the grave without revealing their secrets. Fun fact: As a teen, future president Theodore Roosevelt—who was an avid hunter and nature lover—tried to purchase a pound of arsenic for taxidermy purposes at a store in Liverpool and was refused. "I was informed that I must bring a witness to prove that I was not going to commit murder, suicide or any such [dreadful] thing, before I could have it!" he wrote in his diary. (An adult apparently did vouch for him.)
10. Taxidermy has specific terminology.
In taxidermy, a specimen is an exact replica of the animal as it appeared in the wild; an example of a trophy is a deer head mounted on the wall.
11. Taxidermy competitions include a category called “Re-Creations.”
According to Milgrom, in these categories, taxidermists attempt to create an animal without using any of its actual parts—making an eagle using turkey feathers, for example, or creating a realistic panda using bearskin—or even recreating extinct species based on scientific data.
12. Louis XV’s rhino was taxidermied.
When the rhino that belonged to Louis XIV and Louis XV was stabbed to death by a revolutionary in 1793, its skin was varnished and stretched over a frame of wooden hoops. At that time, it was the largest animal to undergo a modern taxidermy process. The skin is on display at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris; its bones are displayed separately.
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2021.