Tetrapod Zoology

As a kid, among my most favourite books were those of the Casa Editrice AMZ’s Animal Life and The Private Lives of Animals series, first published in Italian during the late 1960s and translated into English during the 70s. There are loads of these books, and they all follow the same format: a big painting of the featured animal on the left (with text and a ‘Did you know?’ feature), and then little paintings reconstructing aspects of daily life on the right. The art is often wonderful, and the poses and scenes from these books have often been faithfully copied by many less gifted artists.


However, because the artists were often asked to depict scenes that had only been reported anecdotally – and never filmed or photographed – they had to paint all manner of absolutely incredible, anomalous occurrences. In Animal Life in Africa (Young World Productions, London, 1971), for example, we see a ratel attack a wildebeest, a shark attack a hippo, a secretary bird catch a rabbit, a Cape buffalo fight a rhino, baboons catching hares, a rhino beating up two crocodiles, and so on and on. But I’m not complaining. However, it’s also obvious from some of the paintings that the artists sometimes knew very little about the animals they were painting. Look at these pages on Sable antelope Hippotragus niger. What’s wrong?

Here’s a closeup of a family scene, just to emphasise the point.


PS – am going away for a while shortly. Don’t worry, I’ll leave you with something to do while I’m gone.

UPDATE (added 14-8-2008): as nearly everyone correctly noted, the problem with these illustrations is that they depict all the sable antelopes with the colour scheme of adult males. In reality, only adult males are jet black: females and young are chestnut to dark brown (this varies among the subspecies). Females and young also have smaller horns than adult males, and this is depicted correctly in some of the pictures but not in others (one youngster is shown without horns at all, which isn’t right). I will agree with Carel (of Rigor Vitae) that the artist concerned was most likely working hard to a deadline, and without the access to information that we now take for granted, and while I’ve been referring here to a significant and misleading error, it doesn’t diminish the high quality of the artwork. And, yes, I’ll post the hippo vs shark picture some time.

Coming later today: a truly novel Mesozoic archosaur!


  1. #1 Stewart Macdonald
    August 13, 2008

    What, no mention of bigfoot?!?

  2. #2 Bovidaeloony
    August 13, 2008

    Hmmm, interesting that the “family group” all have female horns and adult male coloring, even the immature individuals.

  3. #3 Darren Naish
    August 13, 2008

    What, no mention of bigfoot?!?

    The press release happens on Friday (when I’ll be at a conference). I’m not putting much faith in the ‘Georgia gorilla’/RICKMAT (oh, please) being the big deal that is claimed: the ‘carcass’ does not look in the least bit genuine.

  4. #4 Raaf
    August 13, 2008

    Well secretary birds are known to catch hares and the same is true for baboons.

    “….Suddenly, adult male Max began chasing a young Cape hare. He quickly caught it and began tearing through the skin with his teeth. The other baboons watched. Some of the adult males that were dominant to Max thought of trying to take the hare away from him, but it was small and they knew he would put up a fight to keep it. Among baboons, “possession is nine-points of the law”

    I don’t find this anomalous or extremely incredible. It’s just the daily routine of their lives.

  5. #5 Darren Naish
    August 13, 2008

    Ok, baboons catching hares was perhaps the one bad example.

  6. #6 Hai~Ren
    August 13, 2008

    Bovidaeloony is right… aren’t female sable antelope and juveniles brownish instead of pure black?

  7. #7 bhut
    August 13, 2008

    I’m guessing that you’re referring to the lack of sexual dimorphism (only bull sables are black) in the book?

  8. #8 Serena
    August 13, 2008

    Well, most have mentioned the lack of sexual dimorphism.
    My first thought was: Aren’t Sable antelopes mostly solitary? Would you see them congregating at all?

  9. #9 Serena
    August 13, 2008

    Nevermind. I should’ve looked it up before I posted.

    I will stick with the lack of sexual dimorphism.

  10. #10 Raaf
    August 13, 2008

    Could there be a naughty horse (trying to mimick a sable) drinking alongside the antilopes ?

  11. #11 Barn Owl
    August 13, 2008

    I thought the same thing, Raaf- a sable antelope that has shed its horns (oddly, for an antelope), and morphed into a weirdly-marked paint horse.

  12. #12 warak
    August 13, 2008


  13. #13 Max Paddington
    August 13, 2008

    I’m gonna go with ‘Lack of Sexual Dimorphism’ too. And that one hornless sable does look oddly ‘horselike.’ I’m also gonna add “horns too small/feminine” on these supposed “Male Colored” critters, because it looks like they goofed on both.

    Now being an artist, and from a strictly artistic viewpoint, I’m still gonna say that these paintings are very beautiful. I too had a childhood collection of ‘animal books’ as my parents called them, and though I’m not familiar with this one, some of the ones I had (and still have somewhere) were beautifully, if unscientifically, illustrated.
    These books have their place…. they inspired me into wonder that rivalled and eventually surpassed my religious upbringing, they stirred up my emotions about the subject at an age when I would have been too young to grasp all those facts and details anyways.

    As for the Georgia Gorilla, much as I want to believe, I’m gonna have to side with reason here…. the face is ALMOST convincing (though the teeth look odd) but I imagine with the body you’d sort of be able to see ‘skin’ underneath the hair, this doesn’t even look like a real animal hide. I suppose it could be some artifact of freezerburn, but if it is a real hide it’s buffalo if anything.

    Off topic, but Wasn’t a straight-horned relative of the Sable antelope supposed to be one of the influences behind the ‘Unicorn’ myths? (besides the indian rhinoceros)?

  14. #14 John Conway
    August 13, 2008

    Yeah Darren, make with the shark vs. hippo pix plox.

  15. #15 Mark Lees
    August 13, 2008

    You mentioned sharks attacking hippos. Strangely I had a book as a kid in the early 70s – not one of the series you refer to – that had a picture (artwork not photo) of a shark attacking a hippo. It is one of the pictures that stuck in my mind. I recall that it stated that Zambezi Sharks (the African populations of the Bull shark Carcharhinus leucas) entered fresh water and had been known to attack hippos.

    The webpage
    In the section on bullsharks refers to it attacking young hippos, and repeats this at:
    where it states: “In the Limpopo River in southern Mozambique, Bull Sharks have been known to attack young Hippos”. (6th paragraph down on the diversity of its diet).

    Allegedly Discovery Channel once aired a film of a confrontation between a hippo and a zambezi shark – though I suspect this may be the same as the rather poor ‘Animal Face-Off: Hippo vs. Bull Shark’ (2004) – which can be found on the internet (in English and Spanish) and seems to be just a hypothetical animation of a fight between an adult male hippo and a large zambezi shark. It is rather dire, and apparently one of a series of similar pitting all manner of creatures against each other [Spoiler: the hippo wins šŸ™‚ ]

    So (ignoring the film) there may (note may)be some basis for sharks attacking young hippos, and given the way female hipos are with their young I guess a shark trying to make a meal of a young hippo could quickly find it had taken on more than it planned.

    Regarding the bigfoot pictures – I reserve judgement until Friday, but at the moment I am not optimistic, though I have not studied it long enough to be able to say just what, I feel there is something wrong with the pictures so far posted.

    I am confused by the whole bigfoot thing. On the one hand the idea of a large bipedal ape in N America sounds preposterous – but when I read Kranz’s Bigfoot Sasquatch Evidence I came to the conclusion that there is a large body of evidence that cannot be lightly dismissed and to ignore that is equally unsatisfactory. The Patterson film has the same effect on me – when I first saw it I thought it was an obvious fake, but having watched it many times and researched the background etc I feel that it is hard to believe it is a fake. So now I really don’t know – both options seem difficult to accept.

  16. #16 Mark Lees
    August 13, 2008

    Ah, I meant to link to the ‘Animal Face-Off: Hippo vs. Bull Shark’ (2004).

    I did warn you it’s a dire over-the-top animation.


    There is a also rather weird saltwater croc vs great white shark one ( I won’t tell you who wins – but don’t expect realism!). Others include Gorilla vs leopard, walrus vs polar bear, alligator vs blackbear and rhino vs elephant. I came to the conclusion I would probably have loved these as a kid, but now think this is just silly.

  17. #17 Zach Miller
    August 13, 2008

    Aside from the sexual dimorphism bit, I suspect that no antelope would actually face off against a predator, choosing instead, perhaps, to flee.

  18. #18 J.S. Lopes
    August 13, 2008

    These books have a Portuguese translation, printed in Brazil in the middle 70’s, called “Os Bichos”. I have this collection, who was bought by my grandfather. In this book I learned my first zoological matters. It’s full of curious mistakes, but the pre-historic chapter, with Zdenek Burian’s paintings, is marvellous. Odd mistakes: a Tyrannosaur fighting an Allosaur; a Tyrannosaur hunting a Diplodocus.

  19. #19 Hai~Ren
    August 13, 2008

    Max Paddington: I think you would be referring to the Arabian Oryx.

  20. #20 Jerzy
    August 13, 2008

    Females and young are black – should be brown.

    BTW, call me oldboy, but I greatly enjoy older pictures and stories about wildlife. Time when Africa was swarming with lions, herds of African elephants thousands strong, wildlife all over not confined to national parks… World was big, wonderful and beautiful then.

  21. #21 Jerzy
    August 13, 2008

    “Hippo vs. Bull Shark’ ”

    BTW, there IS saltwater population of hippos in some islets off W African coast.

    Wonder why Discovery Channel better not made film about them. :-/

  22. #22 DDeden
    August 13, 2008

    My thoughts: a hornless sable? 4 legs in the water (with none behind crowding it) where crocs would seem likely? (I’ve no idea about coloration.) Do sables butt horns head to head like rams for dominance? I thought it was more body blows than horn to horn compression contests. (I probably just forgot.)

  23. #23 carel
    August 14, 2008

    Today it’s easy to quickly research the physical descriptions and variants of an antelope species, along with the basics of its natural history, but the reference resources available to an illustrator in the 1960s were insignificant in comparison. The artists employed to create most of these books typically worked under severe deadlines, with little time to search out literature. I consider their accomplishments pretty humbling.

  24. #24 neil
    August 14, 2008

    Is it that there forest dwelling but portraid in a savanna environment?

  25. #25 Emile
    August 14, 2008

    Wow, I love those books! I still have the “garden animals” and “deep sea” books in the series.

    That said… um, the herd is too small? No horns on one antelope?

  26. #26 genghisprawn
    August 14, 2008

    Females are generally tan, the herd seems too small, and too many vertebral bones. More glaringly — the bull in the second image has malformed hindquarters, no tail, and but a single hind leg.

  27. #27 Oruga
    August 14, 2008

    No need to emphisise the point (you spoiled it all, heh), females must be red.
    It’s a pity my childhood encyclopaedia had not many pictures. The one with sable antelopes was great though, I fell in love with oryxes and black sable antelope instantly.

  28. #28 JuliaM
    August 14, 2008

    “Aside from the sexual dimorphism bit, I suspect that no antelope would actually face off against a predator, choosing instead, perhaps, to flee.”

    I remember reading in one African hunting book (possibly one of Peter Capstick’s…?) about a lioness attacking an adult male, and getting the tip of the horn embedded in it’s throat (the lioness carcase being recovered later from the waterhole it was tossed into and the broken horn extracted), the sable trotting off with minor wounds.

    But then who knows how much of these books are the safari hunter’s equivalent of fishermans’ tall tales..? šŸ˜‰

  29. #29 Darren Naish
    August 14, 2008

    Well done everyone: the answer is now added to the body of the article. Yes, it’s the sexual dimorphism I had in mind.

    Sable antelopes will indeed face up to predators and have been reported to gore lions, as Julia said (roan, kudu and oryx have also been reported to injure or kill lions). Sable have also been reported to attack people when provoked (e.g., when shot at).

  30. #30 Don Cox
    August 14, 2008

    The wrong colors are easily explained. The artist was almost certainly working from black and white photographs. Brown hair and fur come out much too dark in B&W photos.

  31. #31 BlueMako
    August 16, 2008

    I remember reading in one African hunting book (possibly one of Peter Capstick’s…?) about a lioness attacking an adult male, and getting the tip of the horn embedded in it’s throat (the lioness carcase being recovered later from the waterhole it was tossed into and the broken horn extracted), the sable trotting off with minor wounds.

    I’ve read that story too, I believe.

  32. #32 David Marjanovi?
    August 16, 2008

    The prehistory book in this series is of immense historical value. (And sadly of no other, except artistic. Ornithomimus shedding its tail like a squamate and running away without tipping over, and that’s just for starters.)

  33. #33 Shawn
    August 18, 2008

    Some of those old books are fascinating if just for the misinformation. But they give you a little insight into how our views on animals and their behaviors has changed. Somewhere I have a book that was printed in the the 40’s (?), it’s a wildlife book, geared toward older children, and it lists quagga (probably already extinct by that point)as being a very rare species of zebra, and another shows a thylacine with several “puppies” that look more like golden retrievers with stripes.

  34. #34 JuliaM
    August 18, 2008

    “Some of those old books are fascinating if just for the misinformation.”

    I’ve picked up a few and leafed through them at boot sales and the occasional antique fair or church jumble sale. They’d never pass muster today, being very ‘non-PC’ with regards to animal rights.

  35. #35 Alan Kellogg
    August 20, 2008

    The family group? Gays, and the horse is into bestiality.

  36. #36 anthropopotamus
    August 24, 2008

    It happens that I read this collection during my childhood, and my interest for animals rised because of them. If we consider how poor was ethology at the beginning of the 70’s, I the right question would be : how could they publish a “Private life of animals” so accurate, in spite of their understandable mistakes ? (sorry for my english)

  37. #37 Sordes
    June 10, 2010

    I know this is an old post, but I wanted to add a note about the hare-hunting baboons. In GrizmekĀ“s monumentual book series “GrizmekĀ“s Animal life encyclopedia” thereĀ“s a description of a baboon which catches a hare. It did bite off and ate one of the hareĀ“s ears when it was still alive. It seems it was more some kind of playing behavior, not really hunting.

  38. #38 draco
    August 8, 2011

    I have seen a photo of a baboon eating a hare’s ear while it is still alive. It is in one of the Time-Life series, either Primates or Mammals.

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