Credit: The Royal Collection 2008, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

A sloth is painted in a standing posture by an unidentified artist in the early 1600s. But the arboreal animal, which normally hangs upside down, doesn’t have the musculature to support this position. And artist Maria Sibylla Merian depicts a tarantula carrying a hummingbird, a meal too grand for any real spider.

Many artists had to guess at the typical behaviour of exotic creatures brought to Europe from newly discovered continents. Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomically accurate drawings benefited from careful studies of the live animal, as well as dissections. His sketch of a human-like bear foot correctly shows that bears also walk on the soles of their feet.

These and other such gems can be seen at the Amazing Rare Things exhibition, which opened last week at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace in London.

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