Saturday, March 31, 2018

How a Wild Ass Looks to a Color Blind Lion

Thayer photograph in Central Park
Above Photographic comparison of a stuffed zebra and a wild ass in Central Park in NYC, from Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom by Gerald Handerson Thayer. New York: Macmillan, 1909/18. The caption reads: Artificial ass and zebra, looked at from the low viewpoint of an ambushed lion, showing the effacing effect of the stripes in actual operation (facing p. 136). The entire book is available online.


Unsigned, HOW A WILD ASS LOOKS TO A COLOR BLIND LION. Artist Thayer Demonstrates His Theory of Concealing Coloration. IN CENTRAL PARK’S WILDS. Lay Crowd Sees Zoological Demonstration of Idea That Col. Roosevelt Attacked in The Sun (New York), March 12, 1912, p. 7—

If Col. [Theodore] Roosevelt finds time to take from his multifarious activities on the first cloudy day after today he can run up from the Outlook office to the 81st Street entrance to Central Park at 10 am and see how a wild ass looks from a lion’s viewpoint. If this please him he can also see how a zebra looks from a ditto viewpoint on a cloudy day in the Sotik [Kenya]. But better than all he can verify his expressed opinion of how Abbott H. Thayer, portrait painter and father of the Thayer theory of concealing coloration in the animal kingdom, looks from an African faunal naturalist’s viewpoint.

Mr. Thayer will necessarily be in proximity to the wild ass. The faunal naturalist has said of the artist amateur in the field of zoology and ornithology that he was “wild,” that being one of the minor characterizations indulged in by the faunal naturalist in his “Revealing and Concealing Coloration in Birds and Mammals,” by Theodore Roosevelt, author’s edition extracted from the bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History.

Just because Mr. Thayer did not trot out his wild ass and his zebra—both stuffed, but very lifelike—at the demonstrations he gave in the wildernesses of Central Park and the lot behind the Museum of Natural History yesterday morning Col. Roosevelt was not there. Nothing so picayune as stuffed hummingbirds perching on an azalea flower or a dummy filly loo bird nesting next to a neolithic brick in the back yard of the museum could lure a hunter of big game to forsake conferences and such, even though this was to be Mr. Thayer’s last word in a controversy upon which he entered unafraid with the premier stalker of the oryx. So Mr. Thayer had to be contented with an uninterrupted demonstration of the counteraction of rotundity and the immutable law of countershading as applied to the coloration of a bluejay, a canvas duck, twenty-nine hummingbirds and a chrome colored dog.

The dog, it may be stated parenthetically, was a volunteer subject, and by making itself perfectly visible in the operation of running away with one of the dummy birds thereby demonstrated that Mr. Thayer’s theory as applied to chrome dogs may be all right in the barren where such dogs come from, but not in the entirely artificial conditions in and about 81st Street and 8th Avenue.

The artist-naturalist opened his ocular refutation of Rooseveltian criticism by ranging on the ground back of the museum a dozen or more birds of dun colored canvas hue. Everybody who gathered to view the experiments agreed that the birds as they lay on the dead grass were really very visible. Then Mr. Thayer took an assortment of paintings and began to daub deceiving lines and splashes on the hurricane decks of three or more of the birds. Everybody agreed that when the countershaded the birds by painting—counter shade is the exact term—they became really very invisible.

There was just one thing which he couldn’t persuade Col. Roosevelt to accept, Mr. Thayer explained—the counter action of a rotundity and countershading. Wasn’t it plain enough that when a bird is round—and it may be said that most birds are more or less round—that he is lighter on the underneath side than he is on top the tricks of these shadows appear to counteract that bird’s natal gift of rotundity? Yet Col. Roosevelt had just a short while ago written Mr. Thayer from the Outlook office that “if a man wears a black frock coat and white duck trousers that man will not become by that fact invisible whether he is a rotund or a thin man.”

It began to filter in upon the consciousness of several in the crowd of spectators that Mr. Thayer did not agree with old Dr. Darwin and William Wallace [sic: should be Alfred Russel Wallace] and those other persons who worked it out that the stripes and dots and zigzags on all birds and mammals, with the exception of genus homo, were not designed necessarily for their protection. Mr. Thayer, who is an artist first and a naturalist only through his art, believes that the Almighty colored the flamingo as he did so that the stealthy crocodile would mistake the bird for a sunset on the Nile and not snap at it. Animal coloration is for protection, according to the theory which Mr. Thayer expounded yesterday to a policeman and about 150 people in plain clothes.

The spectators moved over to Central Park upon Mr. Thayer’s invitation and there they beheld the bluejay test. Mr. Thayer laid a sheet down where shadows would streak it; that represented snow in the winter home of the Canadian jay. Then he laid several stuffed jays on top of the sheet and defied anybody to distinguish the bluejays from the bluish shadows on the sheet. It is not the province of The Sun to decide any private bets, but one might say that if a person couldn’t—

After that came the hummingbirds perched amid the flowering glory of some specially imported azaleas and cinerarias. Because the birds were so particolored, Mr. Thayer explained, and not monochromatic, their outlines were blurred and they were rendered invisible even though they had ruby throats and emerald backs. Counteraction of rotundity again and there you were! A hummingbird from a hawk’s viewpoint—if hawks eat hummingbirds—would be—nothing.

Maybe it takes an artist like Mr. Thayer or Edmund Russell [Shakespearean actor?] to comprehend these fine points in optics and to get a wild ass from a lion’s viewpoint. But Col. Theodore Roosevelt, he says that no zebra ever deceived him by appearing like the evening sky against a foreground of reeds and he’d have a small opinion of a lion who would get only that impressionistic stuff when there was a meal behind it…


Mary Fuertes Boynton, "Abbott Thayer and Natural History," in Osiris Vol 10, 1952, pp. 542-555—

Mr. Thayer placed a model of a zebra not many feet back from the bridle path in Central Park, New York City, and the story goes that no one reported seeing it, not even the mighty hunter Theodore Roosevelt, who rode daily on that path and maintained in print that the zebra was the most conspicuous of animals [p. 546].