Elephant illustrations: the art of science

By Amy Russell 13 September 2012
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An Australian illustrator has fused science and art to help save an endangered species – the Asian elephant.

THE INDENTS IN AN elephant’s skull, the protrusion of its ribs and the mass of wrinkly skin hanging from its bones are all clues for illustrator Andrew Howells. With a set of 60 illustrations, Andrew has created a reference index for Body Condition Scoring (BCS), which helps scientists visually assess the health of captive Asian elephants.

“To make a BCS assessment you need visual references that demonstrate the scope of possible body conditions in a species, and from this understanding assign a body condition score to an individual animal,” Andrew says.

BCS is one component of an international study – involving universities, zoos and conservation research centres – that aims to discover the optimal body condition for reproductive success in captive Asian elephants.

As a PhD candidate in Natural History Illustration at the University of Newcastle, Andrew spent several years researching, observing and sketching the form, proportion, structure and anatomy of Asian elephants. In 2009 he joined the late Dr Roy McClements, a veterinary science lecturer at the University of Sydney, for a month at Fort Worth Zoo, Texas. Here he had access to the zoo’s photographic database, which documented the body conditions of more than 90 elephants, and worked closely with vet scientists as they studied the health of the amiable giants.

Sketching playful elephants

Andrew also spent countless hours at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, sketching and photographing the resident herd. Visiting regularly over a three-year period, he witnessed the physical growth and personality development of three healthy calves, and the formation of close bonds with their keepers.

“To have reproductive success here, and to watch the playfulness of the calves, and the natural  instinct of the mums was really special,” Andrew says.

The index is six sets of nine illustrations, with each set representing the range of body conditions from a different angle. The physical changes in each of the stages indicate the health of the animal: the elephant graduates from emaciated to obese, and the ideal weight is somewhere in the middle. The accompanying skeletal reference, which Andrew sketched from observations of an articulated skeleton at the Australian Museum, Sydney, highlights the bones that become visible during weight loss.

Elephant illustrations a key reference

Based on the principles of animation, the illustrations in the index score can be viewed on their own as individual static references, or as a morphing animation in a web browser.

“With illustration I tried to eliminate some of the variables that appear in photographs, which could make a health assessment difficult, like the differing characteristics of individual animals or even the lighting in the shot,” Andrew says. “I called this technique ‘Tra-digital’ because it was the idea of working digitally and traditionally for the outcome of looking traditional. I was trying to build consistencies in the artworks while still allowing for creativity.”

Now a lecturer at the University of Newcastle in the Natural History Illustration course, Andrew believes his methods could be applied to create a BCS reference for any species, as long as the illustrator understands what’s under the skin, and is helping students develop their own reference illustrations. “I’d also really like to keep working on conservation-based projects where you can develop some sort of functional resource for use in the field or in promoting a cause,” he says. 

Source: Australian Geographic (Issue 109, July-August 2012)