Specimen of the Week 290: The awful Bosc monitor lizard
By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2017
Taxidermy appears to being going through a period of popularity at the moment. Hipsters and fans of geek-chic have realised what many of us already knew – natural history is cool. Gastro-pubs and boutique coffee shops are widely using it as decoration (I wonder whether they know that it’s probably been covered in arsenic to stop it being eaten by moths and beetles – not the best things to have around food and drink), there are excellent museum installations exploring it, and there are taxidermy classes being offered all over the place. However, some of it is truly awful (perhaps that’s part of the charm?), including this week’s Specimen of the Week…
**The Bosc Monitor Lizard**
This is not what a Bosc Monitor looks like.
That’s the trouble with taxidermy: it can be very inaccurate, which is interesting if you think about it, as it is at once a “real” lizard specimen – made of the lizard itself – but also inauthentic. There are many taxidermy specimens in museums that do not accurately depict the animal they are representing, but museums rarely acknowledge this, which means we are constantly misleading our visitors. I plan to explore this further in a future post.
Taxidermy is an art
Anyone can make art, but that doesn’t make them an artist. Good taxidermy is art. Good taxidermists are artists. Whoever prepared this lizard was not an artist – as you can see. It is awful.
If you want to upset a taxidermist, then refer to taxidermy specimens as “stuffed animals”. They will tell you that “stuffing” is not an accurate way of describing how taxidermy is made. However this lizard has in fact been stuffed. It was skinned by slicing across the throat, and then its skin was turned inside out like a sock (but they failed to remove the bones from the tail). They then rammed as much cotton wool in through the throught slit until the body was completely taut, to the extent that it can bear its own weight like a balloon animal: it does not appear to have any solid framing inside – just tightly stuffed cotton wool, turning the legs into dumpy sausages. The result is that it looks absurdly obese, and the skin has been stretched so that the scales are seperated by the underlying soft skin. In life this skin is not exposed. This is not how taxidermy is normally made, as this excellent video* from the Horniman Museum and Gardens will show you:
Sold as souvenirs
This specimen came into the Museum in 1982, as part of a large batch of material that had been seized by HM Customs at UK airports from people who were illegaly attempting to import protected species (this one came from Nigeria). Customs then donated them to the Museum to be used for educational purposes. Trade in animal specimens is a significant factor in biodiversity decline globally, and while there are organised crime groups exploiting wildlife on an industrial scale, it’s more likely that the person who tried to import this lizard had naively bought a souvenir on their holiday, and were unaware of the impact of their actions.
The lesson is don’t buy souvenirs that incorporate wildlife products, even ones which are so awful that they are charming – you don’t know what harm you could be doing. While Bosc monitors are not considered endangered (but all monitor lizards are protected under CITES), we have two of these specimens at the Grant Museum, and I have seen an identical one at Manchester Museum (prepared in the same way). It would seem likely that they were made by the same person, who was trading in this species regularly, which is bad news for monitor lizards.
*The video is part of an excellent installation by ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long which closed this week, but the website is worth a visit to learn more.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology