But cannot this cat also be, deep within her eyes, my primary mirror?       -Jacques Derrida




all images of the discolored tapir: Tapir skull (Vasileiadi, 2017; Courtesy UCL,Grant Museum of Zoology)


Specimen: Skull of tapir with brown discolouration.  Grant Museum of Zoology Z2898.

Origin: Officially unknown. 

Location:Officially unknown. 

Material: Bone.


  • Length 45.5 cm
  • Height: 33 cm
  • Width at bars: 18.6 cm

Conditions:Brown discoloration of bone, some teeth missing.

3D rotation - (Giphy.com 2017)

About the specimen

The Tapir skull is a natural specimen left behind after the death and decay of the actual animal. Due to the lack of information it is not known how and why the animal this skull belongs to, died. However, scientists were known to be collecting animal skulls since the enlightenment period (Rosenberg 2009), thus it is possible that skulls just like this one were collected during that period to help identify and catalogue the animal species of the world.

Moreover, research comparing the skulls of the different sub-species has suggested that this skull could belong to a tapirus terrestris,  a Lowland tapir known to inhabit South America (Vasileiadi 2017).

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Courtesy of Colbert 2002

A feature of tapirs that make this specimen utterly valuable for natural history is the fact that they are considered living fossils. This is because they have existed, with little change, for up to 40 million years. So, this specimen represents the species that has been preserved for a very long period of time.

The causes of the brown discoloration of the specimen are unknown. Research has suggested that the different colors of bone can be caused by natural processes within the soil but can also be evidence of cultural activities or of the way of death of the animal. For example, since bone subjected to increasingly high temperatures tends to turn from white/cream to brown, black and grey, that might support a theory that the animal suffered from burning or a fire in order to be captured.

Symbol of Death and Innovation

Throughout time and culture, skulls have consistently served as symbols of death and bad omen. They have also been employed in human ceremonies and rituals (Kamrani 2007). Skulls signify mortality and invoke fear as they generate grotesque images of torture and death. The skull is what remains forever, after the death of a being, due to its inorganic component which is bio-apatite (a crystallized form of calcium carbonate) enabling it to preserve better than any other part of a body.


 It is interesting to note that the region of the human brain responsible for face recognition is so evolved that it can see faces within only a few dots, lines or patterns. Because of this evolutionary trait, even untrained humans can quickly recognize buried craniums during excavations while generally mistaking other bones for shards of stone. Thus, the human brain often associates the image of a skull with a familiar human face. Furthermore, skulls -specially that of humans- tend to display a certain degree of neoteny due to its large sockets. Humans are biologically conditioned to find that appealing. Because of this, skulls tend to have a greater visual appeal than the rest of the skeleton. Essentially, skulls -much like death- fascinate people as much as repel them.


This tapir skull is also a great representation of the animal cost required in scientific innovation. Since ancient times, when Ancient Greeks were trying to devise something that would eventually resemble a scientific method, humans have consistently used animals to experiment and test theories. Because of the taboos regarding the dissection of humans, Aristotle, Diocles, and Galen -all prominent physicians of the time- based their treatises of medicine on what they discovered while performing “vivisections” (exploratory surgery of live animals) (Henrique Franco, 2013). During the Enlightenment period, although human dissections started to become prevalent, animals were still used extensively in experimentation. According to Henrique Franco (2013, p.243), ”[Enlightenment period] physiology would mark the dawn of modern scientific inquiry in the life sciences. Animal experiments were now proving to be more informative and relevant for obtaining scientifically sound knowledge on basic biological processes than ever before”. Today, animals, specially rats, continue to be used as test subjects in a plethora of scientific researches; that range from biomedical engineering to new beauty products.


All of this begs the questions: How much animal death is truly needed for scientific innovation to occur? Is it ethical to subject animals to pain and suffering so that human knowledge can be advanced? Are the benefits of scientific innovation ever equitably distributed between humans and animals?

Regrets and Disgust

18th century

Although, today, debates regarding the ethics of animal experimentation are common, the topic was also a matter of concern during the Enlightenment Period. Stephen Halles and Albrecht Von Haller, both arguably the most prolific physiologists of their time, based their groundbreaking work on inflammation, neurophysiology, heart function, and hemodynamics in animal testing . According to Henrique Franco (2013, p.246), “both researchers were disgusted by the gruesomeness of their own experiments and were concerned about their moral justification, but nevertheless carried on, certain of the need for the use of live animals for the comprehension of many basic physiological processes, which were yet far from being understood”. In the minds of many scientists, the possibility of scientific progress took precedent over animal suffering and pain. Do you agree?

Relevant innovations of 18th-century science based on animal studies include: the foundation of experimental pharmacology, electrophysiology and modern embryology!


Arthur, B. (2015). Dining Like Darwin: When Scientists Swallow Their Subjects. [online] NPR.org. Available at: http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/08/12/430075644/dining-like-darwin-when-scientists-swallow-their-subjects 

Bennett, J. (1999). Thermal Alteration of Buried Bone. Journal of Archaeological Science, [online] 26(1), pp.1-8. Available at: http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0305440398902837/1-s2.0-S0305440398902837-main.pdf?_tid=969438d4-f215-11e6-9aa7-00000aacb360&acdnat=1487008701_c9d5e4c98466102577eace8f52399737

Blashfield, J. (2017). Tapirs. [online] Science.jrank.org. Available at: http://science.jrank.org/pages/6688/Tapirs.html  

Colbert, M. (2002). Digimorph - Tapirus bairdii (Baird's tapir). [online] Digital Morphology. Available at: http://digimorph.org/specimens/Tapirus_bairdii/.

Mason, J. (2017). Charles Darwin Ate Every Animal He Ever Discovered. [online] History Buff. Available at: http://historybuff.com/charles-darwin-ate-every-animal-he-ever-discovered-y65xDmReq2XJ 

Rosenberg, G. (2009). The revolution in geology from the Renaissance to the enlightenment. 1st ed. Coulder, Colorado: Geological Society of America.

Further Readings


Burns, E. W (2003). Science in the Enlightenment: An Encyclopedia. 1st ed. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO Press.

Day, N. (1994). Animal Experimentation: Cruelty or Science?. 1st ed. New York: Enslow Publishers.

Henrique Franco, N. (2013). Animal Experiments in Biomedical Research: A Historical Perspective. Animals Basel, 3(1), pp. 238-273.


Senior, M. (2009). A Cultural History of Animals in the Age of Enlightenment. 1st ed. New York: Berg Publishers.


Skulls and other symbols of death


Did you know that Charles Darwin ate every single animal specimen that he ever studied?

(Mason, 2015)


Courtesy of Arthur 2015