Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Science from the 'Howling Wilderness'

The publication of a serious and well-put together scientific publication from one of the newest British colonies was recognised as a significant achievement in London, if a review in the Popular Science Review was any guide:

The first of these decades is now before us, and we must congratulate Prof. McCoy upon the commencement of what will evidently be a work of great importance, not only in the colony, but also to naturalists in all parts of the world. Poisonous snakes are so rife in Australia, and as the means of distinguishing them a matter of so much interests to the colonists, that we do not wonder to find the first three plates in this decade occupied by species of Elapidæ, which appear to rival their dreaded relative, the Indian cobra, in their Virulence and Venom.

Comparison with the Indian Cobra brings into focus the unprecedented reach of the British Empire at the height of its power. A hint of inter-colonial rivalry is detectable in McCoy's tone as he describes the typically placid Tiger Snake:

This species which goes under the colonial name in Victoria of Tiger Snake from its tawny cross-banded coloring, and ferocity, is well know to frequently inflict bites rapidly fatal to men and dogs, and is extremely ferocious in disposition, reminding us strongly of its near ally, the Cobra di capello of India, like which it flattens and extends the skin of the side of the neck laterally when irritated, to twice its width when quiet; the black stretched skin being then very visible between the separated scales

The Popular Science Review had the last word, noting the remarkable quality of the Prodromus.

Of the plates we must speak of in high terms of praise. The figures of the animals are well drawn, and printed in colours and in a style which may well excite our wonder that such work can be turned out in a place which was a howling wilderness not fifty years ago.1

Common Brown Snake, Pseudonaja textilis, by Arthur Bartholomew.
Common Brown Snake, Pseudonaja textilis, by Ludwig Becker & Arthur Bartholomew.
Tiger Snake, Notechis scutatus, by Arthur Bartholomew.


1'Review: Zoology of Victoria', The Popular Science Review, London, Harrdwicke & Bogue, April 1879, p. 177.