Bison bonasus bonasus as a museum exhibit in the 18th – early 20th centuries

A.A. Fedotova

Proceedings of the Zoological Institute RAS, 2018, 322(2): 160–184  ·

Full text  


The paper discusses the Białowieża bison (Bison bonasus bonasus) as a museum exhibit in the 18th – early 20th centuries, basing on the analysis of archival documents, mainly from St. Petersburg. One of the last remnants of extinct megafauna once roaming through Europe, by the Early Modern time it had been eliminated in the most part of its previous range. In the 16th –18th century, it had the status of a natural curiosity and an exclusively royal game. In the 18th century, the carcasses of the European bison from the imperial menageries went into the cabinets of curiosities where they became the objects of study for naturalists. By the late 18th century, the last population of the European lowland bison had survived in Białowieża Primeval Forest, which became a part of the Russian Empire with the Third partition of Poland. The attention of the Imperial family, which preserved the system of protection of the European bison and the forest where they lived, ensured the survival of the species till WWI. The development of zoology and zoological collections provided a new status to the Białowieża bison – the status of a valuable gift of the Russian Tsar to a scientific community. To receive such a precious gift, a scientific community had to use its diplomatic and bureaucratic channels, to recruit a naturalist willing to travel to Białowieża, to organize a hunt, to process the skin and bones, and finally, to deliver this massive package to a museum. Nevertheless, throughout the second half of the 19th century, most requests made by European and Russian naturalists were granted and the majority of zoological museums received the European bison from Białowieża, either in form of a stuffed animal, a skeleton, or at least a skull. The transformation of the 17–18th century Kunstkammern into research zoological institutions and the development of taxidermy went in parallel with the transformation of the European bison as a museum exhibit. Stuffed animals became anatomically accurate; new expositions included habitat groups, and some institutions amassed extensive collections for comparative study. The presence of the European bison almost in every major European museum made them well known for wider public. In 1919, the last Białowieża bison was killed in the wild, but the popularity of this species helped the restitution of the animal. Nowadays, the “old” specimens are of interest not only from a historical point of view, but also as a source of samples for genetic research.

Key words

Białowieża Primeval Forest, natural history museums, zoological collections, history of zoology, Bison bonasus bonasus

Submitted February 5, 2018  ·  Accepted April 24, 2018  ·  Published June 25, 2018


Alexander E.P. 2008. Museums in motion: an introduction to the history and functions of museums. AltaMira Press, Lanham, MD, 350 p.

Anderson M.S. 2003. The Ascendancy of Europe: 1815–1914. Routledge, London, 448 p.

Anonymus. 1906. European bison studies. Lesopromyshlennyi vestnik, 28: 258. [In Russian].

Baer K. 1819. Begleichung des Schädels vom Auer mit dem Schädel des gemeinen Ochsen. In: Hagen K.G. (Hrsg.) Beiträge zur Runde Preußens, Bd. 2. Königsberg Universität, Königsberg: 234–237.

Baer K. 1836. Note sur une peau d’aurochs (Bos urus), envoyée do Caucase. Bulletin scientifique de l’Acad émie Impériale des sciences de St Pétersbourg, 1(20): 153–156.

Baer K. 1950. Autobiography. AN SSSR, Leningrad, 466 p. [In Russian].

Bajko P. 2004. Kalendarium białowieskiego żubra. Multico Oficyna Wydawnicza, Warszawa, 172 p.

Bocherens H., Hofman-Kamińska E., Drucker D.G., Schmölcke U. and Kowalczyk R. 2015. European bison as a refugee species? Evidence from isotopic data on early holocene bison and other large herbivores in Northern Europe. PLoS ONE, 10(2): e0115090.

Boeskorov G., Potapova O., Protopopov A., Plotnikov V.V., Agenbroad L.D., Kirikov K.S., Pavlov I.S., Shchelchkova M.V., Belolyubskii I.N., Tomshin M.D., Kowalczyk R., Davydov S.P., Kolesov S.D., Tikhonov A.N. and van der Plicht J. 2016. The Yukagir Bison: The exterior morphology of a complete frozen mummy of the extinct steppe bison, Bison priscus from the early Holocene of northern Yakutia, Russia. Quaternary International, 406: 94–110.

Bojanus L.H. 1827. De uro nostrate eiusque sceleto commentatio scripsit et bovis primigenii sceleto auxit. Nova Acta Physico-Medica Academiae Caesareae Leopoldino-Carolinae Naturae Curiosorum, 13(2): 411–478.

Brandt A.F. 1864. Guidebook of the Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Imperial Academy of Science, St. Petersburg, 79 p. [In Russian].

Brandt F.F. 1865. Zoological and Zootomical Museums. Zapiski Imperatorskoi Akademii nauk, 7(1): 135. [In Russian].

Brincken J. 1826. La Foret Imperiale de Białowieża en Lithuanie. Glücksberg, Varsovie, 127 p.

Chiozzi G. 2017. Habitat dioramas: a centuries-old voyage of discovery. Natura, 107(2): 5–21.

Cuvier G. 1812. Recherches sur les ossements fossiles, ou l’on rétablit les caractères de plusieurs animaux dont les révolutions du globe ont détruit les espèces, t. 4. Deterville, Paris. 278 p.

Daheur J. 2013. Les usages identitaires de l’élan et du bison en allemagne, en Pologne et à Kaliningrad: Étude de six sculptures monumentales de la fin du XIXe siècle à nos jours. Trajectoires, 7. (; retrieved April 1, 2018.

Daszkiewicz P., Jędrzejewska B. and Samojlik T. 2004. Puszcza Białowieska w pracach przyrodników 1721–1831. Wydawnictwo Naukowe Sempe, Warszawa, 215 p.

Daszkiewicz P., Samojlik T. and Jędrzejewska B. 2012a. Puszcza Białowieska w pracach przyrodników i podróżników 1831–1863. Semper, Warszawa, 185 p.

Daszkiewicz P., Samojlik T. and Krasińska M. 2012b. Leopold Walicki’s experiments on cross-breeding European bison with cattle in the context of 19th century biological sciences. Studies in the History of Biology, 4(1): 33–40.

Daszkiewicz P. and Samojlik T. 2014. Napoleon, Białowieża Forest and the last bison from Transylvania. Echa Przesz łości, 15: 67–73.

Daubenton L.J.-M. 1754. Le squelette d’un aurochs. In: Buffon G.-L. Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière: avec la description du cabinet du roi, vol. XI. Imprimerie Royale, Paris: 418–425.

De Bont R. 2017. Extinct in the Wild. Finding a Place for the European Bison, 1919–1952. In: De Bont R and Lachmund J. (Eds). Spatializing the History of Ecology: Sites, Journeys, Mappings. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group: 165–184.

Dolmatov D. 1848. Note of the capture of the aurochs (Bos urus Bodd.). Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 16: 16–20.

Edel P. and Daszkiewicz P. 2015. Louis Henri Bojanus, le savant de Vilnius, 1776–1827. Vent d’est, Strasbourg. 64 p.

Farber P.L. 1977. The development of taxidermy and the history of ornithology. Isis, 68(4): 550–566.

Feklova T.Yu. 2014. The expedition of Ilya G. Voznesensky to Russian America in 1839–1849 and the formation of the American collection in St. Petersburg Academic museums. Acta Baltica Historiae et Philosophiae Scientiarum2(2): 44–69.

Feliksiak S. (Red.) 1987. Słownik biologów polskich. Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa. 618 p.

Gautier M., Moazami-Goudarzi K., Leveziel H., Parinello H., Grohs C., Rialle S., Kowalczyk R. and Flori L. 2016. Deciphering the wisent demographic and adaptive histories from individual whole-genome sequences. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 33(11): 2801–2814.

Golenko M. 1935. Muzeum of Białowieża Primeval Forest. Vozrozhdenie, 3609: 5 [In Russian].

Hagen K.G. 1819. Geschichte des Preußischen Auers nebst einer Abbildung desselben. In: Hagen K.G. (Hrsg.) Beiträge zur Kunde Preußens, Bd. 2. Köningsberg Universität, Köningsberg: 206–234.

Herberstein S. 1549. Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii. Adler & Kohl, Vienna, 396 p.

Hilzheimer M. 1920. Dritter Beitrag zur Kenntnis der Bisonten. Archive für Naturgeschichte, 84(A6): 41–87.

Hussowski M. 1523. Carmen de statura, feritate ac venatione bisontis. Hieronymus Vietor, Kraków. 44 p.

Jarocki F.P. 1830. O Puszczy Białowieskiej i celniejszych w niej zwierzętach. Komisja Rządowa Wyznań Religijnych i Oświecenia Publicznego, Warszawa, 52 p.

Karcov G. 1903. Białowieża Primeval Forest. Its historical essay, the modern hunting economy and the Highest Hunting in the Pushcha. Marks, St. Petersburg, 414 p. [In Russian].

Kingston N., Drozdz J., Rutkowska M., Wita I. and Maki L. 1992. Redescription of Trypanosoma [Megatrypanum] wrublewskii Wladimiroff et Yakimoff, 1909 from the European bison, Bison bonasus L., from Puszcza Białowieska [Poland]. Acta Parasitologica, 37(4): 163–168.

Krasinska M. and Krasinski Z.A. 2013a. European Bison. The Nature Monograph. Springer-Verlag, Berlin, Heidelberg, 380 p.

Krasinska M. and Krasinsky Z.A. 2013b. Konrad Wroblewski – badacz zubrow. Parki Narodowi i Rezervaty Prziridy, 32(3): 91–99.

Kulagin N.M. 1919. European Bison of Białowieża Primeval Forest. Moscow Research Institute, Moscow, 173 p. [In Russian].

Kulagin N.M. 1928. Histological structure of the bison’s ovary. Trudi nauchno-issledovaletel’skogo instituta zoologii, 2(2): 1–71. [In Russian].

Kutepov N.I. 1911. Imperial hunting in Russia, the end of the 18th and 19th century. Expedition of State Papers, St. Petersburg, 226 + 289 p. [In Russian]

Langebeek R. 2011. L’aménagement des collections d’Histoire naturelle aux XVIIIe et XIXe siècles. La Lettre de l’OCIM Mus ées, Patrimoine et Culture scientifiques et techniques, 134: 1–11.

Linnaeus C. 1758. Systema naturae per regna tria naturae, vol. 1. Salvius, Holmiæ, 824 p.

Lydekker R. 1913. Catalogue of the ungulate mammals in the British Museum (Natural History). Vol. 1, Artiodactyla. British Museum, London, 249 p.

Millot J. 1945. Les bisons européens des collections du Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle. Mammalia, 9(1): 1–19.

Miloserdov D.Yu. 2016. Catalogue of the collection of trophies of the Tsar’s hunting. GDM, Moscow, 192 p. [In Russian].

Musei Imperialis Petropolitani. 1741. Pars Prima. Imperial Academy of Science, St. Petersburg, 755 p.

N.N. 1860. Z pod Białowieskiej Puszczy. Czas (Kraków), 271: 1–2.

Nyhart L.K. 2009. Modern Nature: The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 423 p.

Ognev I.F. 1926. European bison brain research. Memoirs of the zoological department of the Society of Amateurs of Natural History, Anthropology and Ethnography, 17: 1–88. [In Russian].

Ognev S. 1907. A trip to Białowieża Primeval Forest. Okhotnichii vestnik, 7(19): 301–306. [In Russian].

Oldfield T. 1911. The Mammals of the tenth edition of Linnaeus: an attempt to fix the types of the genera and the exact bases and localities of the species. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London: 120–158.

Palacio P., Berthonaud V., Guerin C., Lambourdière J., Maksud F., Philippe M., Plaire D., Stafford T., Marsolier-Kergoat M.-C. and Elalouf J.-M. 2017. Genome data on the extinct Bison schoetensacki establish it as a sister species of the extant European bison (Bison bonasus), BMC Evolutionary Biology, 17: 48.

Pallas P.S. 1769. De Ossibus Sibiriae Fossilibus craniis praesertim Rhinocerotum atque Buffalorum, observationes. Novi Commentarii Academiae Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae, 13: 436–476.

Pallas P.S. 1777. Description du bufle à queue de cheval, précédée d’Observations générales sur les espèces sauvages du gros bétail. Acta Academiae Scientiarum Imperialis Petropolitanae, 1: 232–257.

Roskosz T. and Empel W. 1965. Komentarz naukowy i analiza dzela. In: Bojanus L.H. Rozwazania nad zubrem i jego koscem. (Memorabilia Zoologica, 14): 147–174.

Samojlik T. 2007. Antropogenne przemiany środowiska Puszczy Białowieskiej do końca XVIII wieku. PhD thesis. Jagiellonian University, Kraków, 181 p.

Samojlik T. and Jędrzejewska B. 2010. Historia ochrony żubra w Puszczy Białowieskiej do końca XVIII wieku. In: Ochrona żubra w Puszczy Białowieskiej. Zagrożenia i perspektywy rozwoju populacji. Zakład Badania Ssaków PAN, Białowieża: 23–32.

Samojlik T., Daszkiewicz P. and Fedotova A. 2017. Żubrze eksponaty z lat 1811–1914 w europejskich kolekcjach naukowych – mało znany aspekt XIX-wiecznej gospodarki łowieckiej w Puszczy Białowieskiej. Sylwan, 161(4): 341–352.

Samojlik T., Dazkiewicz P. and Fedotova A. 2018 (In press). Żubry z paryskiego muzeum, a historia zoologii i muzeografii przyrodniczej w XVIII i XIX wieku, Kosmos. Problemy nauk biologicznych, 67(4).

Satunin K.A. 1904. Genus 7. Bos. In: Turkin N.V. and Satunin K.A. (Eds.) Mammals of Russia. Kushnerov & Co, Moscow: 754–794. [In Russian].

Serebriakov A.E. 1936. Zoological cabinet of the Kunstkammer. Arkhiv istorii nauki i tekhniki, 9: 69–128. [In Russian].

Sheets-Pyenson S. 1988. Cathedrals of science: the development of colonial natural history museums during the late 19th century. McGill-Queen’s University Press, Kingston, 156 p.

Sławiński K. 1931. Zabiegi o pozyskanie żubrów dla muzeum zoologicznego dawnego Uniwersytetu Wileńskiego. Archiwum Historii i Filozofii Medycyny oraz Nauk Przyrodniczych 11(1): 202–206.

Slepkova N.V. 2001. On the Vasilievsky Island, opposite the Palace Bridge. Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, 84 p. [In Russian].

Slepkova N.V. 2016. Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg in the 19th century. Principles of exposure. Studies in the History of Biology, 8(1): 29–65. [In Russian].

Soubrier J., Gower G., Chen K., Richards S.M., Llamas B., Mitchell K.J., Ho S.Y.W., Kosintsev P., Lee M.S.Y., Baryshnikov G., Bollongino R., Bover P., Burger J., Chivall D., Crégut-Bonnoure D., Decker J.E., Doronichev V.B., Douka K., Fordham D.A., Fontana F., Fritz C., Glimmerveen J., Golovanova L.V., Groves C., Guerreschi A., Haak W., Higham T., Hofman-Kamińska E., Immel A., Julien M.-A., Krause J., Krotova O., Langbein F., Larson G., Rohrlach A., Scheu A., Schnabel R.D., Taylor J.F., Tokarska M., Tosello G., van der Plicht J., van Loenen A., Vigne J.-D., Wooley O., Orlando L., Kowalczyk R., Shapiro B. and Coope A. 2016. Early cave art and ancient DNA record the origin of European bison. Nature Communications, 7: 13158–13164.

Starikov Y.V. 2017. Restoration of hunting trophies of the Gatchina Palace. In: Materials of the scientific-practical conference: Royal hunting and recreation. (November 23–24, 2017, St. Petersburg, Gatchina). “Print-2”, St. Petersburg: 247–261. [In Russian].

Starikov Y.V. and Perova T.L. 2016. Taxidermist P.S. Mishchenko. Biography. In: Ionkina V.S (Comp.) The place and role of natural science museums in modern society. GDM, Moscow: 75–77. [In Russian].

Strauch A.A. 1889. Zoological Museum of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. The fiftieth anniversary of its existence. Imperial Academy of Science, St. Petersburg, 372 p. [In Russian].

Sukhomlinov M.I. (Ed.) 1887. Materials for the history of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, vol. 4. Imperial Academy of Science, St. Petersburg. [In Russian].

Sukhomlinov M.I. (Ed.) 1895. Materials for the history of the Imperial Academy of Sciences, vol. 8. Imperial Academy of Science, St. Petersburg. [In Russian].

Sukhova N.G. and Tammiksaar E. 2015. Alexander Fedorovich Middendorf. Nestor-Historia, St. Petersburg, 384 p. [In Russian].

Taczanowski W. 1869. Gabinet Zoologiczny w Warszawie. Tygodnik Ilustrowany, 3(76): 280–282.

Vuure van C. 2005. Retracing the Aurochs: History, Morphology and Ecology of an Extinct Wild Ox. Pensoft Publishers, Sofia, Moscow. 432 p.

Winsor M.P. 2009. Natural History Museums. In: Bowler P.J. and Pickstone J.V. (Eds). 

19th Century Life and Earth Sciences. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 60–75.

Wróblevski K. 1907. Letters from Białowieża Primeval Forest, 1–4. Vestnik obshchestvennoi veterinarii, 19(1–2): 25–26; 19(7–8): 219–222; 19(14): 476–481. [In Russian].

Wróblevski K. 1908. European bison Trypanosome in Białowieża Primeval Forest. Arkhiv veterinarnykh nauk, 6: 554–556. [In Russian].

Wróblevski K. 1909. Letters from Białowieża Primeval Forest, 5–7. Vestnik obshchestvennoi veterinarii, 21(6): 286–288; 21(8): 383–386; 21(14): 364–368. [In Russian].

Wróblevski K. 1912. The theoretical differentiation of some ruminants on the Fruticivora and Herbivora and its practical significance. Arkhiv veterinarnykh nauk, 8: 746–778. [In Russian].

Wróblevski K. 1927. Żubr Puszczy Białowieskiej. Wydawnictvo Polskie, Poznań, 232 p.

Wrześniowski A. 1878. Studien zur Geschichte des polnischen Tur (Ur, Urus, Bos primigenius Bojanus). Zeitschrift f ür wissenschaftliche Zoologie, 30: 493–555.

Wu D.-D., Ding X.-D., Wang S., Wójcik J.M., Zhang Y., Tokarska M., Li Y., Wang M.-S., Faruque O., Nielsen R., Zhang Q. and Zhang Y.-P. 2018. Pervasive introgression facilitated domestication and adaptation in the Bos species complex. Nature Ecology & Evolution, 2: 1139–1145.

Zaslavsky M.A. 1979. Landscapes expositions of the world’s museums. Leningrad: AN SSSR, 212 p. [In Russian].

[Zichy M.] 1861. The hunt in Białowieża Primeval Forest. Ministry of State Domains, St. Petersburg. 71 p. [In Russian].


© Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences
Last modified: February 5, 2019