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All creatures great and small Rhinos, blackbirds and sea monks

Conrad Gessner’s 16th century masterpiece, Historia animalium, catalogued all the animals that were known at the time. March marks the 500th anniversary of the Swiss scholar's birth.

The encyclopaedia of more than 1,000 animals in words and pictures came at a time when zoology was in its infancy. It had a major influence on people’s understanding of the science up until the 18th century.

In this work, Gessner described the animals’ habitat, behaviour, and physiology, as well as their vices and virtues – from the busy bee to the selfless pelican. He also described how animals were of use to humans.

He included animals familiar to him, as well as more exotic creatures, such as those from the New World, which had only recently been discovered.

And the sea monk? Even mythical beasts made it into the encyclopaedia. Ultimately, Gessner was unsure about the existence of all of the animals he included in his epic tome.

Text: Isobel Leybold-Johnson, picture editor: Christoph Balsiger

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