Scientists recently made the somewhat embarrassing discovery that one of the oldest, most widely referenced Asian elephant specimens on Earth is, in fact, an African elephant. But embarrassment gave way to intrigue when the researchers, in searching for a replacement specimen, encountered one whose likeness had been captured by Rembrandt.
Combing through archives, the team matched an elephant skeleton in the Natural History Museum of the University of Florence, Italy, to a description in a 1693 book by the British naturalist John Ray – later cited by the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus in 1758 when he first named the Asian elephant. The skeleton's DNA and shape confirmed the species, and as a bonus it turned out that the individual was an elephant named Hansken, which was painted by Rembrandt in 1637.
"That you can still see it as a life drawing by Rembrandt demonstrates how science and art remain inseparable," says Enrico Cappellini from the Natural History Museum of Denmark, lead author of the study.
The researchers' findings are recounted in the latest issue of The Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.