October 16, 2015

What in the World is That?

        This crazy locust-monster-thing appears most unexpectedly in a series of twelve engravings of insects and birds from 1594.  You can see in the image of the entire page that this is not some pre-scientific misunderstanding of a perfectly normal animal.  The artist is clearly able to depict extremely accurately observed insects.  The other insects are real, identifiable, detailed, and scientific, so it seems reasonable to suppose that this larger thing was equally accurately observed from life.  So, assuming it to be real, what is it?  It’s sort of an insect… it does have six legs, after all, although they’re definitely not those of your typical insect.  They look to be muscled and jointed like a vertebrate.  The antennae are consistent with an insect, but the body is not in three parts (indeed, it almost looks like a fish) and the eyes are not compound (indeed, they look downright intelligent).  I’m not sure whether it has six wings, too, or only four arrayed oddly with three on one side and one on the other.  As it’s otherwise symmetrical, though, I’m guessing it has six wings with two on the far side simply out of sight.  In any case, the wings are neither insectoid nor avian, and the tail is pretty unusual, too.  The webbed feet imply an aquatic life, while the wings, of course, imply flight, and the proboscis implies that it sucks nectar.  Assuming
everything in the picture to be to scale, this creature must be about three inches long, and heftier than your average hummingbird.  I can imagine that this is the sort of thing that most people take to be a bird as it whirrs past, and only every once in a while does someone have a double-take and wonder if they’ve been overdoing the medications.  While I see no evidence of a stinger or pincer, it would still be pretty alarming to have it buzzing around your head or landing on your arm.  Unfortunately we know nothing about its coloration from this image, but the patterned wings lead me to hope that it may be quite brightly or dramatically hued.
        I really get a kick out of this thing, and I love that it’s so skillfully depicted with such careful detail.  I wish I knew what the artist called it, and any information about where it’s supposed to live.  Presumably the renaissance artist took it to be in the insect class, which is why it appears in this particular engraving, but it’s clearly not a proper insect, so what in the world is it?

[Pictures: Grasshoppers and other insects, engraving by Nicolaes de Bruyn and Assuerus van Londerseel, 1594 (Image from the Rijksmuseum).]

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