Stuffed megamammal week, day 5: of elephants and gorillas

How do you stuff an elephant? The - ha ha - obvious answer is 'with great difficulty'. As for the actual answer: funnily enough, the preparation and mounting of elephants for museums is quite well recorded. These African bush elephants Loxodonta africana are on display at the Field Museum in Chicago (thanks to Matt Wedel for the photo). Just look at their size, and wonder... how do these dead animals get to look so alive?


All too few people realise that, when you look at a 'stuffed' animal, you're looking at a tanned skin that's been skillfully fitted over a postured mannequin* or replica of the animal's body, and not at a preserved carcass [the image below shows the skin of one of Carl Akeley's elephants being prepared for mounting. This skin is for one of the AMNH elephants]. That might be blindingly obvious to you and I but, believe it or don't, most people do honestly think that a taxiderm mount is a pickled (!) or freeze-dried (!!) carcass, or a carcass that has had its innards ripped out and replaced with straw or cotton wool or something. For small animals, the mannequin might be made from plaster, wood, plastic, woodwool, or any number of other materials, but for a giant thing like an elephant, a pseudo-skeleton has to be constructed from wood, metal and plaster (or their more modern equivalents), and this in turn is used to support mesh, cloth and eventually clay.


* For common game animals, such as deer, postured mannequins are available commercially.

I was going to elaborate at great length on how Carl E. Akeley (1864-1926), the master of African megamammal taxidermy, developed an oustandingly successful technique of mounting elephants for museum displays. However, I discovered that someone else has already done an excellent job: check it out here. The Field Museum elephant shown at the very top (Mike P. Taylor provides a scale) is one of two standing in Stanley Field Hall in the museum (you should be able to see parts of the second one standing behind the first: the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen FMNH PR2081 stands at the other end of the hall). Both were collected by Akeley and his wife Delia (1875-1970) in Kenya in 1906.

Having mentioned Carl Akeley I feel compelled to say more about him. There is loads that could be said: he was involved in the creation of many outstanding museum dioramas (you may know of the American Museum of Natural History's Akeley Hall of African Mammals: the Mountain gorilla diorama is shown below, from the AMNH diorama site), and also in the procuring and photographing of animals in the wild. I'm particularly interested in his involvement in gorilla conservation.


In 1921, Akeley led an AMNH expedition to the Virungas (in what was then the Belgian Congo). Remember that Mountain gorillas Gorilla beringei had only been known to science since 1902 (and only named scientifically in 1914) and virtually nothing was known of them outside of fairytale. While Akeley's team succeeded in obtaining a group of five gorillas, all of which were - of course - shot, we known from his writing that he was moved by their gestures and expressions. He wrote of seeing a 'heartbreaking expression of piteous pleading' on the face of an infant as it died, and thought that it would have come to his arms for comfort if it could. When referring to the dispatching of another specimen, he noted how 'it took all one's scientific ardour to keep from feeling like a murderer'. Mary Bradley, also on the expedition, made similar comments about the gorilla deaths she witnessed (the quotes are taken from Jones (2006), available for free online if you search for it) [image below shows Akeley with the Somalian leopard he killed - by hand - after it attacked him in 1898 (some sources say 1896)].


Akeley's observations meant that he was able to do a lot to help dispell the mythical image of the gorilla as some sort of dangerous, savage monster. Concerned that these animals did not have the protection they deserved, he lobbied the Belgian Government on his return home to create a gorilla sanctuary, and in his lectures and writing he soon became an activist for gorilla conservation. After a series of setbacks and controversies, the Belgians created a park for the gorillas in 1925. In that year, Akeley set out again on an expedition to the region. It would be his last journey: he died in Africa after contracting a virus, and was buried there.

Well, I really didn't start writing this with the intention of writing about the history of gorilla conservation, but there you go. For more on gorillas there's also The Cultured Ape and Attenborough on gorillas. Note also that Brian, at Laelaps, wrote about Carl Akeley and the 1921 AMNH gorilla expedition here.

I think this brings us to the end of Stuffed Megamammal Week. I hope you enjoyed it. In case you missed any of it...

Refs - -

Jones, J. E. 2006. "Gorilla trails in paradise": Carl Akeley, Mary Bradley, and the American search for the missing link. The Journal of American Culture 29, 321-336.


More like this

Some museum' pachyderms are now models from fiberglass and similar without any skin.

I recall as a curiosity that one hippo model had 5mln artifical hairs put individually in.

Thanks, Darrell, for the series! I was also interested to learn about Carl Akeley, one of the last general naturalists, really a vestige of the John James Audubon generation, when it was okay to just go out and shoot animals and birds.

Actually some "stuffed" animals are really complete carcasses, ant not only skin. There is a very interesting exhibition in the NHM of Berlin aber taxidermy and different techniques as well as the way in which models and reconstrucations are made. There are several example pf small animals like a young hedgehog and some other small animals which are plastinated, that means they are not only skins dragged over a model which replaces the actual body, but everything, inlcuding the muscle tissue and all bones still remains. This works only on small animals, but the results can look really fantastic.

Field Museum! NICE! Next time you're there go to Al's Italian Beef Stand on Taylor just east of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus and eat the food of the gods, i.e., dipped Italian Beef sandwich with sweet and hot peppers! I enjoyed the brief history about Akeley (whose name is vaguely reminiscent of a Lovecraft character).

Sorry! I meant to write "...just WEST of the UIC campus..."! Any road, Al's is a bit pricey but it's the best in the city.

Wow Dr. Vector, you must have been at the Field the same time I was! Anyway, that's what the world needs, a book on taxidermy and the history of the subject....not to mention on how to get the bodies *cough*body farm*cough*

By Metalraptor (not verified) on 12 Apr 2009 #permalink

image below shows Akeley with the Somalian leopard he killed - by hand - after it attacked him in 1898 (some sources say 1896)

Crikey! Details, please!

I was privileged to a behind-the-scenes view of specimen preparation at Edinburgh's Royal Scottish Museum (decades ago!) since I had expressed a particular interest in taxidermy/modelmaking jobs.. just speculatively job-hunting..

One of the technicians was at work then on a seated-pose polar bear mannequin - using more plasticine for the body than I have ever seen in one place, before or since - and the head incorporating a real bear skull. Quite a sight, and hard work by the look of it.

I believe they have first refusal on anything that dies at Edinburgh Zoo..

PS Darren, thanks as always for the fascinating facts.

BTW that elephant-skin photo is just begging to be used for a caption competition..

My own entry?: One of the guys is saying,

"You think this is big? You should see the size of the one that stepped on it."

What a great post.
As for Akeley's leopard encounter. The story is quite fascinating from what I've read in a number of places, the primary being Akeley's book "In Brightest Africa" and from a any number of afternoons in the Field Museum which I visited frequently when I was much younger.
In a nutshell: a wounded leopard, a stalking to find it and put it out of its suffering, the leopard or its mate (can't recall exactly) leapt at Akeley, who fortunately caught it with his forearm while avoiding the leopard's attempts to disembowel him with its hind feet...bit of a sticky wicket.
Ackley managed to force his fist down the leopards throat while simultaneously using his knee on the leopard's rib cage.
His story of how he avoided being gored by an forest elephant and the stealthyness displayed is likewise almost beyond belief.
What a remarkable man.
Worth examining his life and times.
Mmmmm. Italian beef...though I'm a Johnny's fan.

Sordes is right, the display at Berlin NHM on preservation, taxidermy and models is excellent.

The Giraffe at Wollaton Hall in Nottingham has it's stomach cut open, so you can see how its 'stuffed' with what seems like a fibre glass shell and wooden struts.

My favorite essay about Akeley and his taxidermy is Donna Haraway's "Teddy Bear Patriarchy: Taxidermy in the Garden of Eden, New York City, 1908-1936." It's currently available here.