Drawing Disgust: Scientific illustration of traditionally unpleasant animals. March 16th 2013

Story posted: Saturday, 16. March 2013 by Lizzie Harper

As a scientific illustrator, I sometimes get commissioned to illustrate animals many people find scary, or disgusting.  They say the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this is certainly true with a variety of natural history illustrations I've completed.  None of these animals evince a reaction of horror or revulsion in me, but I'm interested in exploring why certain creatures do cue such a response.

The most universally loathed candidate is probably the blue bottle fly.

Scientific illustration of a blue bottle fly by Lizzie Harper

These are common insects, and the reasons for their status is clear and understandable.  Flies flit from food to faeces, from carrion to table; laying eggs and thus producing maggots as they go.  Such habits can easily spread disease, and so it makes evolutionary sense for humans to be disgusted by flies and maggots.  However, as an illustrator I'd like to point out the glittery azure of the fly abdomen, its suede-like grey thorax, and mahogony eyes.  Truly, a beautiful insect.

Cockraoches have similar habits and thus ellicit a similar reaction, despite being incredibly elegant with their long antennae and golden brown colouring.

Scientific illustration of a cockroach by Lizzie Harper

One other animal which has an equally unpopular status also shares these unsalubrious habits; the rat.  This was the only mammal I could think of which revolted people, and I have no doubt its penchant for sharing our homesteads and the sewers is the reason.  Again, welcoming such animals into our homes could embrace a disease vector, so evolutionarily it makes sense to feel repelled by, and to avoid it.

Natural history illustration of a rat by Lizzie Harper
(Interestingly, when I submitted the rough of this illustration for the Bumper Book of Nature by Stephen Moss, I was asked to make the rat look "less sweet and more unpleasant" which I duly tried to do.)

Another cue for human revulsion is when animals are ill.  Many feel squeamish when confronted with a rabbit in the later stages of myxomatosis, or if they see the papillomas that can cover the faces of sea turtles.  I'm not certain why this should be, unless avoiding illness confers some advantage or other.  It doesn't extend to human beings though, and one assumes avoiding an ill person would be more useful than avoiding an ill rabbit; perhaps we would avoid other sick humans if it weren't for compassion, or if they weren't relations?  Here is a painting of a dead baby rabbit I found outside a rabbit hole.  It clearly has an enormous neck tumour, and is very young indeed.

Scientific illustration of dead baby rabbit with tumour by Lizzie Harper

One more group of animals seem to cause a revolted response from lots of people; these are the cold and slimy ones.  I really am at a loss for a reason for this; most of the animals which fall into this catagory are in no way threatening to human beings, and lead lives which shouldn't cause any reaction at all, unless one of interest.  Below are two such animals, the earthworm and the garden snail.

Illustration of an earthworm by Lizzie Harper

Scientific illustration of a garden snail by Lizzie Harper

Even young children are taught to call out "gross!" at the feel of a snail or slug sliding across their hands.  All I can think is that the sensation of cold slime is in some way remeniscent of rotting foodstuffs which are best avoided.  Ideas on this are welcome, I'd love to know what other people think is the reason for this reaction.

Surprisingly, animals which can do serious harm to people tend not to fall into the category of being thought disgusting.  Mosquitoes, scorpions, wasps, snakes, and large predators such as lions or crocodiles may scare people; but they rarely cause revulsion.  However, a couple of animals which can hurt humans (be it in a limited capacity) also fall into the "cold and slimy" category and thus ellicit a loathing from many.  The leech and the cane toad are examples.

Scientific illustration of a medicinal leech by Lizzie Harper

Natural history illustration of a cane toad by Lizzie Harper

All of the animals I've included in this blog are ones which will cause a shudder in many; yet all are, in my opinion, incredibly beautiful.  The markings, details, and shapes of these creatures are as glorious to me as the feathers of a peacock (see my blog) or the markings of a butterfly.  The innate and taught reactions to animals are something to be considered before we all join in a communal disgust; and even if there is a reason for caution this in no way unermines the intrinsic beauty of each and every animal.  Many thanks to Adele Nozedar for her suggestion of this blog topic.

Category:  Showcase of themed natural history illustrations   |   Comments:  1   |   Viewed:  3600

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Tuesday, 25. February 2014, 10:16:08 – Malissa:

Excellent write-up. I definitely love this website. Stick with it!