Caught and Coloured: Zoology Illustrations from Colonial Victoria

Drawing the Leathery Turtle

In 1862 the surprise appearance of a Leathery Turtle at Portland caused considerable interest.

The only species in the genus Dermochelyidae, it is the world's most widespread reptile, traversing all oceans from the Arctic Circle through the tropics and well into the cool southern ocean. Its great size, low metabolic rate and insulating tissues enable it to maintain a body temperature greater than the ambient temperature through which it moves. Remarkably, it eats only jellyfish and other gelatinous free-swimming invertebrates.

This unfortunate specimen was caught and transported to the University, by which time it had presumably long expired. Once there, Arthur Bartholomew set about capturing its likeness.

On 22 February 1862 and in similar manner to naval architecture, Bartholomew drew the turtle in plan, elevation and from 'bow on'. In another striking image, he propped open the turtle's beak and drew the view within its extraordinary mouth. All five sketches were completed on just one day, and it appears there was some urgency involved, possibly due to the strong smell of the decomposing animal.

The turtle was subsequently prepared as an exhibit, featuring prominently in an early engraving of the Museum. Its leathery carapace remains part of the collection today, still reeking 140 years later.

Taken individually, each image does not capture the essence of the animal. Only the left side of its mouth is fully detailed, while the second symmetrical half is a mirror image of the detailed section. However they provided enough information for Bartholomew to create a lithograph of this remarkable animal many years after the observations were made.

Leathery Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, by Arthur Bartholomew - view A.
Leathery Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, by Arthur Bartholomew - view B.
Leathery Turtle, Dermochelys coriacea, by Arthur Bartholomew - view C.