Ever wonder who made the dioramas in our mammal halls? Read all about the artists who created these wonderful scenes. Learn more >
The Habitat Views video considers ways of looking at dioramas today, and documents the creation of several new displays. Take a look over on our YouTube channel >
There are not many art forms more misunderstood than taxidermy. Perhaps the greatest misperception is its basic technique. Museum taxidermist Tim Bovard sculpts over an animal’s skeleton with clay, and from a mold of that clay sculpture, makes a lightweight mannequin (urethane foam today; burlap, plaster and papier-mâché in decades past), which he then pulls the skin over. It takes a sculptor's hands, and an expert eye for animal anatomy.
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Are you brave enough to march right up stare a wild animal in the face? Not many of us are. And we rarely get an opportunity to do so — even at the zoo. Our African Mammal hall allows you to study in detail dozens of magnificent and fascinating creatures.
The hall’s habitat dioramas, among the finest in the world, recreate the natural environments in which these animals were found at the beginning of the twentieth century. Showcasing a range of habitats — from desert to rainforest, these startlingly real recreations include the trees, plants and birds that lived alongside the featured animals. Sadly, due to human encroachment, many of these animals are extremely rare and their original environments no longer exist in the world — except as captivating dioramas.
The Museum is unique in that it has, since the 1920s, maintained a full-time diorama program with dedicated staff artists. Take note of the exquisite backdrop paintings that add drama and a sense of place to the dioramas. Many of the diorama backdrops were created by prominent artists such as Charles Abel Corwin, Hanson Duvall Puthuff, Duncan Alanson Spencer, Florence MacKenzie and Frank J. MacKenzie; and Robert Reid; the backdrops themselves are considered noteworthy pieces of fine art. Learn more >
With a typical lifespan of 20 years, the endangered Arabian oryx lives in a desert habitat and was originally found in the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula. This North African variant is scimitar-horned and has a slightly darker coat. The Arabian oryx may have given rise to a well-known legend. When they run, oryxes look more like horses than antelopes. And, when seen in profile, the oryx’s overlapping horns may have been mistaken for the single horn of the mythical unicorn.
Taller and heavier than Asian elephants, savanna elephants have a lifespan of 70 years. They were originally distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but now are a vulnerable species with a range that has been greatly reduced by human settlement and hunting. Ancestral species evolved tall teeth for feeding on grass, but modern elephants browse on trees and shrubs and only eat grass occasionally. Based on their genetics, African elephants may be separated into a savanna species and a forest species, with a pygmy forest subspecies found in West Africa.
Spotted hyenas are ferocious territorial predators with powerful bone-crushing jaws. They live in a range of habitats from the forest edge to semi-desert environments. With a lifespan of 20 years, they live in clans of up to 80 members, in which females are always dominant to males. During the Pleistocene era they were distributed throughout Africa and Eurasia. They were common in sub-Saharan Africa until recently. Now these creatures are often systematically eradicated because of their danger to livestock. Without conservation efforts they will become a threatened species.
The okapi was not discovered until the end of the 19th century, when the first skins were misidentified as a kind of zebra. Now we know that the okapi is actually the only living relative of the giraffe. Okapis live in Africa’s equatorial rain forests in the Congo Basin, where they are protected but vulnerable. Mostly nocturnal and solitary, okapis have lived up to 30 years in captivity, but their natural lifespan is unknown. The okapi’s most notable feature is a foot-long blue tongue it uses to strip leaves and buds from trees and also to clean its eyelids and ears.
The second largest land mammal (after elephant), hippos have a lifespan of 45 years and are now considered to be a vulnerable species. Historically they were distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but have been eliminated from many parts of their former range. Typically, groups of up to 30 individuals live in and around rivers and lakes, sleeping or remaining partially submerged during the day and feeding on adjoining vegetation at night. Hippos may travel more than a mile from water in search of food. Genetic studies in the past decade have indicated that hippos are the closest living relatives of whales.
These monkeys are widely distributed through equatorial Africa. They live in forests and woodlands and are abundant in West Africa and in reserves and parks in East Africa. Elsewhere they are hunted for their skins and are in danger of extinction. With a lifespan of 20 years, these monkeys gather in territorial groups of 8-15 individuals. They feed primarily on leaves, and have a complex stomach that allows them to survive on a diet relatively low in nutrition. The name colobus is from the Greek word meaning “mutilated one” and was given to these monkeys because they lack thumbs.