Tetrapod Zoology

Tetrapod Zoology

Amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals - living and extinct

Leonard Brightwell's brilliant palaeo-zoo


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...

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

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