Mimicry at the Museum: The Case of the Reptile Replicas

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A student post by Angela Robb, MSc Museum Studies student at the University of Glasgow. Angela previously studied Zoology at the University of Glasgow. Her work placement project focuses on The Hunterian’s snake collection, including updating database records and learning about specimen conservation.

In 1962, The Hunterian’s zoology section decided that one of its displays needed freshening up – and a couple of new occupants. In a letter to the Natural History Museum in London, the museum assistant asked for information about Conophis lineatus, a Central American snake with peculiar colouring. Yellowish or greyish, with a series of black stripes along its length and yellow on its belly, the creature was a mystery. What was the function of this colouring? And how might The Hunterian acquire a stuffed specimen for its tired display?

The display in question was a showcase of special types of colouring animals use to avoid predators. Some have coloration that is cryptic, allowing them to blend in and ‘disappear’ against their background. Others are aposematic, with conspicuous markings warning would-be enemies that the animal is venomous or toxic (or tastes disgusting, at least). There are those, however, that merely mimic the appearance of an unpalatable species, duping predators into believing that they too leave a deadly taste in the mouth. Examples include brightly coloured, venomous coral snakes and the harmless snakes that mimic them. The Hunterian’s letter also enquired about obtaining stuffed specimens of these.

The initial reply from the Natural History Museum was unable to explain the coloration of Conophis lineatus, but named a zoology professor at the University of Michigan who might be able to help. Within days The Hunterian’s museum assistant wrote to this scientist for advice, but C. lineatus and its colouring would remain a mystery, for the species was not mentioned in this letter. This time the focus was on two snakes whose relevance to the display’s theme was known for sure: the coral snake and its mimic, the kingsnake. As well as asking whether specimens could be obtained, the museum assistant sought advice on preservation of their colours. She noted that, when simply stuffed, the snakes’ colour brilliance faded through time.

On the same day that this letter was written, a second was put in the post at the Natural History Museum, this time from the museum’s chief exhibition officer. Replying on the topic of stuffed specimens, the exhibition officer gave details of two London taxidermists, including the renowned Rowland Ward Ltd. The Hunterian’s collection includes a large number of birds and mammals by Rowland Ward, as well as a reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus, GLAHM:Z1209). This 7.3-metre giant, mounted on a tree, was purchased in 1917 and is on display in the Hunterian Zoology Museum today. However, the exhibition officer was doubtful that the taxidermists would have any interest in providing coral or other snake specimens – and recommended instead the purchase of models.

Python
The stuffed reticulated python (GLAHM:Z1209) on display in the Zoology Museum. (Photo © The Hunterian).

No further action was taken until several weeks later, when a reply was received from the professor in Michigan. Though he confirmed that the eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) and its mimic, the scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides – then known as Lampropeltis doliata doliata), would make fine examples for the display, the news on colour preservation was not so good. Neither stuffing snakes nor keeping them in alcohol could be recommended, as reds and yellows would fade quickly. Stuffed specimens were also prone to a rough appearance caused by their scales turning up. The professor echoed the advice of the exhibition officer in London, suggesting that plaster or wax replicas ‘look more like the real thing than the real thing.’

Promptly, the museum assistant at The Hunterian wrote to Mr Ario Gatti, model-maker at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, requesting one each of the coral snake and kingsnake. Sixty years later, the painted plaster models of Micrurus fulvius (GLAHM:104136) and its mimic, Lampropeltis elapsoides (GLAHM:104137), remain vivid and bright – part of a substantial collection of casts and models at The Hunterian. Like the mimics we see in nature, museum models are hard to distinguish from the creatures they copy. By showing animals in all their true colour and detail, they preserve a special kind of realness that would otherwise be lost.

Coral snake
Plaster model of the venomous coral snake Micrurus fulvius (GLAHM:104136), showing its bright warning coloration. (Photo © The Hunterian).
King snake
Plaster model of the scarlet kingsnake, Lampropeltis elapsoides (GLAHM:104137), whose colouring mimics that of the coral snake. (Photo © The Hunterian).

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