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Leonard Brightwell’s brilliant palaeo-zoo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Some of Brightwell's South American Cenozoic mammals. See below.

I’m totally unable to produce any novel material for the blog right now, so – in desperation and frustation – I’m going to post some scanned illustrations. I’ve been meaning to use these for a while; they’re by Leonard Robert Brightwell (1889-1962) and come from the 1941 volume The Miracle of Life, edited by Harold Wheeler and containing contributions by Brightwell and several other authors. My copy is worn and battered, was owned by my grandparents and has sentimental value.

Much of The Miracle of Life is devoted to evolutionary history and the life of the past. Photos of Vernon Edwards models abound. While there’s much in the text of the book that’s of historical interest, my primary interest here is in Brightwell’s art, which I find fascinating. Brightwell is well known as an author, cartoonist and illustrator of books on animals; he became well established after 1920 and, among many others, published such books as the 1921 A Cartoonist Among Animals, The Dawn of Life (published in 1938) and The Zoo Story (published 1952). His many black-and-white engravings and etchings of dogs and zoo animals are highly regarded by collectors and you can see some going for fairly high prices online.

Anyway, on to the art. Here’s a nice montage of various extinct birds. Really interesting to see ‘Great cariama’ used for a phorusrhacid – I’ve never seen this before, has anyone else? And why the hell is Dinornis the moa referred to as an ‘Inva’? I’ve never heard that before either. And there’s no ‘gannet’ there – the smaller bird (it has tooth-like projections on or in its bill) is perhaps means to be Ichthyornis or something.

Brightwell's illustration 'Extinct birds compared to an ostrich'. The animals were labelled as follows (these labels are not all accurate!): 1. Archaeopteryx, the ancestral bird. 2, Diatryma with a primitive horse in its beak. 3, Great cariama. 4, Dodo: a modern species lived in Mauritius until the latter half of the 17th century. 5, Solitaire. 6, Inva. 7, Odontopteryx. 8, Gannet. 9, Wingless diver.

I’m not about to start talking about brain sizes and what they mean and don’t mean, but here’s an illustration – titled ‘Brawn versus brains’ – that depicts the absolute brain sizes of several familiar animals. Paraceratherium is labelled Balucitherium in the book, and the sauropod (standing, Wile E. Coyote-style, on an overhanging precipice) is labelled Brontosaurus. No, Brightwell wasn’t an early supporter of the Osteological Neutral Pose hypothesis, since others of his illustrations show sauropods holding their necks sub-vertically. The man isn’t any old man, by the way… it’s “civilized man”.

We are all products of our time; I mean, many of the ideas that we think of as ‘right’ could well be proved wrong in time. When Brightwell was working, it was honestly thought that pelicans stuffed their pouches full of fish, as shown here. They don’t do this – rather, the ‘pouch’ is used as a net that expands when the lower jaw is swept through the water; it isn’t used as a storage device. Similarly, Brightwell showed a marabou (or adjutant) storing animal prey in a ‘pouch’ at the bottom of its neck. This isn’t right either – there’s a sac in this position, but it’s used in sociosexual display and, apparently, thermoregulation. Macaques and rodents really do use cheek-pouches for food storage, of course.

The Miracle of Life also includes a series of illustrations that show fossil mammals of the Cenozoic. The individual characters aren’t labelled in these illustrations, and each separate page deals with a different continent. The animals at the top of each page are the (geologically) oldest; those at the bottom are the youngest. Here’s his page of North American mammals. Obvious animals to look for include Uintatherium, Basilosaurus, Daeodon, Aepycamelus, Cervalces, Mammut and Mammuthus

Here are Asian mammals. Hmm, another horned dinoceratan at top left. Paraceratherium is obvious, as are Sivatherium and a shovel-tusker gomphothere (or amebelodontid). Some of the other animals are rather more enigmatic, however. Part of the South American scene is shown at the top of this article – not sure what that thing with the horns is (presumably meant to be a toxodontid of some sort – some do have horns… but not cow horns).

Here’s one of many likeable scenes of living animals – this shows ‘parachuting animals’. I like the fact that we can actually see some anatomy in the colugo – it isn’t just depicted as a gliding sheet with a head at one end. Draco makes an obligatory appearance, and here I have to vent my usual complaint about these lizards: Dear World, Draco volans is not the only Draco species; it is but one of over 40!

I could carry on – there’s lots more material. Many of Brightwell’s bird drawings are especially brilliant, and I’ll have to share them some time. Ok, back to work…

Darren Naish About the Author: Darren Naish is a science writer, technical editor and palaeozoologist (affiliated with the University of Southampton, UK). He mostly works on Cretaceous dinosaurs and pterosaurs but has an avid interest in all things tetrapod. His publications can be downloaded at He has been blogging at Tetrapod Zoology since 2006. Check out the Tet Zoo podcast at! Follow on Twitter @TetZoo.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Dartian 2:04 pm 09/5/2012

    Brightwell is well known as an author, cartoonist and illustrator of books on animals

    Ah, I recognise they style; Brightwell must also be the artist responsible for many of the illustrations in H.G. Wells (yes, that H.G. Wells), Julian Huxley & G.G. Wells’ monumental book The Science of Life (1929). I agree that there is something strangely fascinating about his artwork. They are cartoony in a good way (if that makes any sense).

    why the hell is Dinornis the moa referred to as an ‘Inva’?

    Are you quite sure it’s supposed to be that in the original? Couldn’t it simply be the word ‘Moa’ written in a hard-to read font?

    Here are Asian mammals.

    Spot the Elasmotherium!

    a shovel-tusker gomphere

    A shovel-tusker what?

    Link to this
  2. 2. hydrocorax 2:47 pm 09/5/2012

    “They are cartoony in a good way (if that makes any sense).”

    Yes, it does make sense. I also like Brightwell’s simple, graceful drawings. They have to be taken in the context of their time, for sure. I think a sheet with a head better characterizes an actual colugo in flight than Brightwell’s “supercolugo,” which is more fun to look at. I also agree that “Inva” is likely a misreading of a handwritten “moa.”

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  3. 3. naishd 4:08 pm 09/5/2012

    Thanks for comments. “Gomthere” – say what? It clearly says “gomphothere” above, you must have been hallucinating (ha ha).

    Re: “Inva”, the text definitely says “Inva”. The transliteration error idea is a good one.

    And – “supercolugo”.. I agree, his illustration is not exactly accurate. Look at those shoulder blades: it’s a musclebound monster! But, whatever (smiley).


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  4. 4. jwmorenob 10:24 pm 09/5/2012

    ” – not sure what that thing with the horns is (presumably meant to be a toxodontid of some sort – some do have horns… but not cow horns).”

    I´m pretty sure that the thing with horns* is a Trigodon. Trigodon is a toxodontid genus with a rhino-like bony bump on its front. There are no many reconstructions of this animal (there should be a lot, it´s just bizarre).

    *I can see only one horn in the ilustration.

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  5. 5. jwmorenob 10:26 pm 09/5/2012

    Over 40 draco species? Amazing! I knew there was more than one, but 40? wow!

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  6. 6. Bill Wilson 6:45 am 09/6/2012

    Any particular reason you went with Basilosaurus over Zeuglodon, Daeodon over Dinohyus, and Aepycamelus over Alticamelus, but then stuck with Mastodon over Mammut in labelling that figure? I presume the original work used all the “old” names (in terms of widespread use, not priority).

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  7. 7. naishd 9:55 am 09/6/2012

    Bill: I meant to use the names in current use, so use of Mastodon was just a silly mistake, now corrected. The animals illustrated in the respective Brightwell illustrations are actually not named – there are just a few vernacular terms in the captions (e.g., ‘Dawn Age whales, hoofed mammals and others’), so you can’t see which names he would have used for the taxa concerned.


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  8. 8. naishd 9:56 am 09/6/2012

    jwmorenob: yes, over 40 Draco species. It was 41 as of earlier this year, with several more due to be named soon. There is a still incomplete Tet Zoo article somewhere called ‘Why Draco volans is boring’ in which I discuss the diversity within this taxon.


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  9. 9. Bill Wilson 11:42 am 09/6/2012

    Ah, OK, thanks Darren, though you’d gotten my hopes up for a second that the (much better if sadly not oldest) name “Mastodon” was making a comeback.

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  10. 10. David Marjanović 2:14 pm 09/6/2012

    Looking forward to “Why Draco volans is boring”!!! :-)

    The man isn’t any old man, by the way… it’s “civilized man”.

    Wow. But good to see his brain is no bigger than a “giraffe rhino”‘s.

    I also agree that “Inva” is likely a misreading of a handwritten “moa.”

    So do I. Compare Gavialis and Ginkgo.

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  11. 11. Dartian 1:50 am 09/7/2012

    It clearly says “gomphothere” above, you must have been hallucinating

    Oh. I could have sworn…

    several more due to be named soon

    Would you happen to know if one of them will be named ‘Draco malfoy‘? ;)

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  12. 12. farandfew 4:19 am 09/7/2012

    The man isn’t any old man, by the way… it’s “civilized man”.

    He looks disturbingly like Hitler

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  13. 13. David Marjanović 7:47 am 09/7/2012

    Godwin! IT’S THE LAW!

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  14. 14. Finback 9:29 am 09/7/2012

    I have to agree with the notion of bad transliteration of “moa” to ‘inva’. ‘in’ and ‘m’ could look much the same when written close together, so somewhere down the chain, someone had copy problems.

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  15. 15. BrianL 9:38 am 09/7/2012

    Could you tell us some more about *Trigodon* and why it is bizarre?

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  16. 16. Heteromeles 10:57 am 09/7/2012

    Thank goodness someone Godwin’ed before I did. Anyway, did the labels for 7 and 8 in the second illustration get flipped? While 7 doesn’t look much like a gannet, at least it doesn’t have a serrated beak.

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  17. 17. naishd 12:50 pm 09/7/2012

    Trigodon and other horned toxodontid toxodonts: I’ve written the text on them for the toxodont series, just have to get round to publishing it.


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  18. 18. Jerzy v. 3.0. 5:12 pm 09/7/2012

    Cool illustrations! You see the guy was a good artist AND knew animals really well. His subjects are very basic, but at the same time lively and with identification characteristics pointed – just compare two genera of giant armadillos!

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  19. 19. Ring Tailed Lemurian 6:09 am 09/12/2012

    First (and probably last) comment here.
    Love your blog Darren. Love the illustrations (yours, and others, such as these).

    I’ve just learned two things.
    1) Pelicans DON’T store fish in their pouches.
    2) Searching for the exact words of the limerick, Wikipedia tells me that someone named “Dixon Lanier Merritt” (NOT Ogden Nash) was the author of
    “A wonderful bird is a pelican,
    His bill will hold more than his belican.
    He can take in his beak
    Food enough for a week;
    But I’m damned if I see how the helican”.

    Link to this

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