Art Conservators

We know about extinct species from prehistory through fossils. What constitutes a fossil is known as a “fossil record.” These records include preserved remains, corporeal impressions and any biological trace of formerly living things from the past. Examples of fossil types are bones, shells, exoskeletons, stone imprints of animals or microbes. These fossils are used to provide as replete a depiction of the complete living being as possible. However, many fossil records are incomplete due to the elements of time and climate wearing them down. Bones, impressions and shell fragments are devoid of more detailed characteristics, like plumage or skin texture. They also do not always tell us about how the animal behaved in their natural environment. This is why artistic renderings of these species have been a valuable resource for understanding the latter in conjunction with the fossil records.

Depiction of aurochs, horses and deer inside of the Lascaux Cave network in Montignac, France.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Prehistoric art helps us compose a larger picture about extinct species and their relationship with other species, including early human civilization. These works of art reveal many things about animals, such as how climate and culture has impacted their existence. In the previous post, I wrote about how furniture conservator Bennett Bacon discovered a common motif among Ice Age cave art that revealed the behaviors and life cycles of native fauna, including extinct species like the auroch, the wild ancestor of modern domestic cattle. Prehistoric and ancient cave paintings have also helped modern day researchers distinguish the mobility of extinct megafauna. An example is Aboriginal rock paintings showing Procoptodon goliah, the largest known species of kangaroo, striding and hunched over on its hind legs, a trait that is markedly distinct from extant species of kangaroo.

I also had a recent discussion with artist, educator and marine naturalist Richard Dolan, which got me thinking about the important responsibilities that artists take on when they depict the natural world. During our conversation Dolan said something incredibly poignant regarding why he started incorporating found objects into his artwork representing humpback whales: “it’s not the kind of art people want hanging in their homes, but it’s the kind of art that the whales are calling for.” We are dangerously close to a day when some species of whales face the prospect of extinction due to our actions.

Unfortunately, throughout the history of art there is a fair share of artwork portraying animals that are no longer with us. One of these animals is the dodo, a large flightless bird endemic to the island of Mauritius, that went extinct in the mid-1660s.

A painting c.1628-33, by Mughal artist Ustad Mansur, depicting a life study of the dodo (center) among other birds the artist observed. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The painting shown above features a depiction of a dodo bird in the center. It is attributed to Ustad Mansur, a seventeenth century artist from the Mughal Empire. Since the dodo existed in a time before photography, and fossil records do not provide complete details about its appearance, the appearance of the dodo that is known to us today comes from seventeenth century art and literature. Many of these descriptions vary in accuracy (both in notating its physical and behavioral characteristics) because only a few were actually created while looking at a living bird.

Mansur’s dodo bird is the largest figure in the center of a field of other birds, which include the blue-crowned hanging parrot (upper left) western tragopan (upper right), bar-headed goose (lower left) and painted sandgrouse (lower right). Scholars consider this image to be one of the most precise representations of the dodo bird since it was derived from observing a living specimen when two live birds were brought to India in the 1600s. Mansur’s painting is one of the rare colored images of the dodo in existence.

Hopefully more recent naturalist themed art will not have to be contextualized in a manner similar to Mansur’s dodo bird painting. Like Dolan, who portrays the various threats whale populations face today, other contemporary artists have employed astute observational measures to raise our awareness and empathetic responses to endangered species.

One of today’s endangered species are coral reefs. Yes, corals are actually animals, and they are teetering on the verge of irreversible calamity due to global water temperatures rising and toxins being introduced into their habitat. Most of these factors are human induced such as coral mining, agricultural and urban runoff, pollution, over fishing and blast fishing. Coral reefs are experience widespread bleaching, where they turn white as a response to environmental stress. Although bleaching does not immediately kill corals, it significantly compromises their overall structure and puts them at increased risk of death. It is estimated that over 50% of the world’s coral reefs could be destroyed by the 2030s.

The Föhr Reef exhibited as part of the Crochet Coral Reef project by Margaret and Christine Wertheim and the Institute For Figuring in Tübingen (Germany) in 2013.
NearEMPTiness, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In response to the dire situation corals are experiencing, artists Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim started the Crochet Coral Reef project. What began as an art installation intended to raise consciousness towards ecological conservation, has become one of the largest collaborative art projects in the history of art. The Crochet Coral Reef is an educational endeavor that is beneficial to helping us learn about environmental issues, while also honing participant’s skills in critical thinking, math, science and of course, fine art. Through roving workshops, the Wertheims facilitate conversation and insights about marine biology and prompt close observations of the impact the Anthropocene has on corals. Some of the materials that are used to crochet species of coral are the very materials that have put them on the brink of extinction, such as plastic trash. The beauty of the crotchet reef is juxtaposed with the harsh reality that our collective culture is pushing extraordinary lifeforms into oblivion.

In this TEDEd presentation, Margaret Wertheim crochets corals using a technique that combines art, science and math.

Participants and viewers are asked to reflect on these issues and realize that there are no immediate solutions, but that ecological conservation and prevention of accelerated climate change is a long and labor intensive process that is essential for not only the corals’ survival, but our own existence as well. The Wertheims assert that multidisciplinary, cooperative endeavors reveal, “what can we humans do when we work together, not ignoring ecological problems but also not capitulating to fantasies that rescue is around the corner from some sudden technological solution.”

Creative collaboration is a direct action that needs to be consistently and widely applied in order to repair our damaged Earth. The arts give us the resources to shrewdly portray the fragility of our world. By contrasting the beauty of natural science with expressions of devastation, environmentally conscious art makes us acutely aware of how our behaviors can be the difference between extinction and the vitality of life.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Brinkhof, Tim. “Cave paintings reveal what extinct animals may have looked like,” Big Think, 10 August 2022.



  1. I look forward to watching the video. I chose extinction-threatened bird species to do a series of paintings in the pandemic years. One of my favourite artists is Franz Marc. Why you think he incorportated animals in his art?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a really profound and poignant subject for a series during an ongoing pandemic, which really signifies how we reflect, connect and relate in times of natural disaster. I think for Marc, animals represented a representational subject matter that he considered more spiritually innocent than humanity. He has noted that his objective was to express the natural balance between animals and their environment. He also expressed an interest in pantheism. Both would explain his subjective incorporation of animals in his art. Thanks for reading my blog and for the great dialogue, Eric!

      Liked by 1 person

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