Rembrandt painting revealed as true Asian elephant

04 November 2013

Trail to reassign specimen leads scientists to elephant skeleton captured in the flesh by artist.

A team of scientists has discovered that Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus unwittingly combined what we now know are two different species of elephant when he created the first description of an Asian elephant in the eighteenth century.  

The study published today in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society is particularly surprising since Linnaeus is considered the father of taxonomy, the system for naming all living things. 

When he first came up with the name Elephas maximus, Linnaeus used two elephant examples as his reference points. 

One was a five cm-long pickled foetus in a jar from the collection of one of his contemporaries, Albertus Seba. The other was a Latin description of an elephant written by John Ray, a British naturalist who studied at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Albertus Seba and Carl Linnaeus
Seba's elephant

Seba's elephant: the pickled foetus is now known to be an African elephant

Seba published a thesaurus of animal specimens in 1734 and his elephant became known as the Asian elephant type specimen, which scientists have used ever since as the baseline reference for identifying the endangered species

An international team of scientists, including Natural History Museum palaeontologist Adrian Lister, have now discovered that Seba's elephant is actually an African elephant by analysing the DNA of the foetus.

The African elephant, Loxodonta africana, wasn't identified as a separate species to Elephas maximus until 1797 by German naturalist Johann Blumenbach, 60 years after Seba's work. 

The team then tracked down the elephant described by Ray to a skeleton still on show in the Museum of Natural History in Florence. Ray visited Florence in 1667 on a collecting tour of Europe. 

Hansken the performing elephant

By analysing DNA from a bone fragment, the team can confidently say the skeleton is the true type specimen for the Asian elephant Elephas maximus

To add to the story, members of the team are almost 100 per cent certain that this is the skeleton of Hansken, a female Asian elephant that became a travelling curiosity at the time and was known to have died in Florence in 1655.

Although Ray only saw the skeleton of Hansken, Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn painted the elephant from life when he saw it in Amsterdam in 1637. 

This now means that Rembrandt's paintings and sketches are the original and correct portrayal of the type specimen of an Asian elephant. 

Prof Lister said the team was excited to finally be able to assign the Asian elephant its correct type specimen.

Art and science

Enrico Cappellini, lead author of the study from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, said, 'That you can still see it as a life drawing by Rembrandt demonstrates how science and art remain inseparable.'

The most prominent differences between Asian and African elephants are that African elephants have bigger ears, are generally larger and have more wrinkled skin.

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