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A Photographer Documents the Evolution of Taxidermy

Taxidermy Brought to Life in Amazing Photos

I first became interested in taxidermy when I was a child, after seeing a photograph in an old Life magazine of the last passenger pigeon, Martha, who died in 1914. It was the first time I had encountered the idea of extinction so directly. I was terribly saddened by this discovery that an entire species could disappear. Martha was preserved and now resides at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This led me to see taxidermy as a way to encounter the past and see the beauty of what has been lost.

As I grew up, my passion for the natural world continued to grow. I love the beautiful dioramas created by Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, and his team at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I even have my own cabinet of curiosities full of found antlers, skulls, and even one very small preserved bat.

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From left: A passenger pigeon, a great auk, and a heath hen, once abundant, are now all extinct. These birds were photographed in the private collection of Bob Howard, Jr., in Palm Springs, California, and in the Great North Museum in Hancock, Newcastle, England. All Photographs by Robert Clark

When the idea for a National Geographic magazine story about taxidermy came up, I was sold. And we knew the perfect photographer for the job. Robert Clark has also had a fascination with how taxidermy can bring you so close to a creature and understands that it’s the last way to see extinct species. He has spent years photographing in museums around the world and seen a wide variety of taxidermy. On this assignment he was fortunate to see and photograph taxidermist George Dante preserving Lonesome George—the last Galápagos Pinta Island tortoise.

Learn more about Robert Clark and his taxidermy assignment in the video at the top of this page.

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Wendy Christensen, a taxidermist and artist, works on an African black rhino at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

From a historical perspective taxidermy played a major role in conservation education and the enlightenment of the public about the natural world during the 19th and 20th centuries. This was the heyday for museum taxidermy, as scientific individuals and institutions from Charles Darwin to the Smithsonian explored the natural world and collected specimens of every type of plant and animal. The specimens were then preserved with great care and anatomical accuracy and put on display for the public to examine and enjoy.

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Ken Walker’s mounted panda alarmed authorities when they first saw it, as it is illegal to mount these endangered animals. But Walker actually used fur from a black bear and a polar bear to create this “panda” re-creation.

Since those times of plenty the numbers of many species have diminished or gone extinct. Specimen collecting and museum taxidermy is a dying art and serves today more as a record and memorial to our threatened and extinct creatures.

Taxidermy continues to evolve. Competitions are still primarily the realm of hunters, but a new category called Re-Creations (showcasing animals created from parts that are not their own) is winning big prizes. The results are more of a model than an object of taxidermy. This may be the future. We leave the animals we love alone and create accurate models of them for our education and enjoyment.

See more of Robert Clark’s taxidermy photography, and read more about the evolution of the field in the August 2015 National Geographic feature story.

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