Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

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Monday 19 February 2024


A beautiful vintage (1800s) full-colour illustration of the unique isabella quagga (public domain)

The quagga Equus quagga quagga is nowadays famous for two very different reasons. Firstly: it is – or was – the only semi-striped form of zebra, its striping being confined to its foreparts. Secondly: although once common in its South African veldt habitat, it was hunted into extinction there during the second half of the 19th Century, with the very last captive specimen's death in Amsterdam Zoo on 12 August 1883 marking the tragic disappearance of this highly distinctive equid from the face of our planet – though The Quagga Project continues its aim to recreate this vanished creature's characteristic phenotype (external appearance) via back-breeding, using striping-deplete specimens of other Equus quagga subspecies to produce quagga facsimiles.

Speaking of which: today, the quagga is classed as a subspecies of the plains zebra Equus quagga, but back in the mid-1800s when still very much alive it was deemed to be a valid, distinct species in its own right, and was dubbed Hippotigris quacka (hippotigris being the name given to zebras by ancient scholars who believed these exotic-looking striped equids to be the product of matings between horses and tigers!) – see later for further taxonomic details. But that is not all.

One of five precious photographs of an adult quagga mare living at London Zoo from 15 March 1851 until her death there on 15 July 1872 – these are the only known photos of a live quagga (click here for more details concerning this quagga quintet)

For a time during that same period, a second, very remarkable quagga species was also recognized, despite being known from just a single specimen – a poorly-preserved skin formerly held at the British Museum in London. This unique, extraordinary-looking animal became known as the isabella quagga, but today the skin is long lost and the isabella quagga itself is long forgotten. Consequently, I felt that what (very) little is known about this beautiful if baffling enigma of an equid richly deserved to be collated and presented in article form in order for modern-day readers to become aware of its erstwhile existence. So here is the hitherto-obscure history of the long-overlooked isabella quagga – a ShukerNature exclusive.

I first learned of the isabella quagga Hippotigris isabellinus many years ago, when I chanced upon the following previously-obscure yet fascinating excerpt from a quagga-themed communication by famous British zoologist Richard Lydekker that had been published by the scientific journal Nature on 10 January 1901. The excerpt alluded to a supposedly separate, second species of quagga, again extinct:

...the British Museum formerly had the skin of a young quagga, in very bad condition, which was presented by the traveller William Burchell [after whom Burchell's zebra is named], and was subsequently described by Hamilton Smith as a distinct species, under the name of Hippotigris isabellinus.

Two points to note here. Firstly: the above-mentioned Hamilton Smith was Charles Hamilton Smith (1776–1859), a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army. He was also a naturalist who scientifically described and named several equine species and subspecies. In two 1841-published tomes referred to later here, he dubbed this enigmatic animal the isabella quagga. Secondly: whereas all zebra species and subspecies are nowadays housed in the genus Equus (alongside horses and asses), back in Lt-Col. Hamilton Smith's time several were housed in their own separate genus, Hippotigris, including the normal quagga, which was formally deemed back them to be a valid species in its own right (rather than merely a subspecies of the plains sebra, as it is classified today) and was duly known as Hippotigris quacka

Late 1800s chromolithograph from my personal collection, depicting a normal quagga with a bushbuck and a gnu (public domain)

Lydekker's communication then continued with the following text, but it is unclear whether this text was still referring to the isabella quagga or (as I suspect) had returned to the communication's primary subject, the normal quagga:

Apparently London museums possess no other relics of this lost species, of which, however, we believe there is a specimen in the museum at Edinburgh. As the animal yielded no trophies worthy the attention of the sportsman, it is unlikely that there are any specimens in private collections, unless, perchance, a skull or two may be in existence.

The remaining text in Lydekker's communication unequivocally referred to the normal quagga, so it needn't be quoted here.

What exactly was the isabella quagga, I wondered, when I first began researching this curious creature, and what did it even look like, bearing in mind that Lydekker provided no description of it in his communication and the British Museum no longer has it?

Back in pre-internet times, it was by no means easy to research anything as unimaginably obscure as the isabella quagga, so after various attemptss to solicit more information concerning it all proved futile, I placed Lydekker's intriguing communication on file and directed my attention to other subjects. Notwithstanding these failures, however, I never forgot about it, so when I was checking some details recently while completing some other researches and noticed it again, still on file, I decided to reinvestigate its elusive subject, but now assisted enormously by the vast wealth of data readily accessible online. And this time, finally, I was successful, as now revealed.

Originally, my only clue had lain in its moniker. For in this instance, isabella refers not to a woman's name but instead to a colour, known in full as isabelline, and which constitutes this mystery quagga's species name, isabellinus. It is variously defined as pale grey-yellow, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment colour, and is primarily utilised in relation to mammalian coat colour and bird plumage.

Presumably, therefore, I mused, this shade was the background colouration of the coat of this unique specimen (a male, incidentally), meaning, if so, that it was paler in appearance than normal quaggas and probably with fainter stripes too. Whether such a difference warranted Hamilton Smith naming it as a separate species, however, when it was surely nothing more than an aberrantly pallid (possibly leucistic?) specimen of the normal quagga (see later), was another matter.

The pale-coloured engraving of the isabella quagga from Hamilton Smith's two 1841 tomes (public domain)

During my recent researches, I uncovered two beautiful vintage illustrations depicting the isabella quagga, both of which represent it in the living state. One of these illustrations is a hand-coloured engraving in very pale shades with minimal background colouration. The other illustration is in full-colour, so it is much more vibrant.

I traced the pale engraving back to a couple of tomes from 1841, which upon close examination turned out to be identical in content but bearing different titles. One is entitled Horses, and constitutes Volume 20 of the massive 40-volume series edited by Sir William Jardine and entitled The Naturalist's Library. The other tome is exactly the same but is retitled as The Natural History of the Horse and constitutes a stand-alone volume. In both tomes, the author is given as Charles Hamilton Smith, and a concise section documenting what he specifically refers to as the isabella quagga is included, containing the pale engraving of this specimen. In both tomes, it is designated as Plate 25, and is credited to Hamilton Smith.

In his duplicated 1841 tomes, Hamilton Smith began his brief coverage of the isabella quagga (pp. 332-334, and which constitutes this claimed species' formal scientific description and naming) by stating that although this animal's body shape (including its head) compared closely with that of the normal quagga, he had separated it from the latter equid because it differed by virtue of its smaller size (barely 10 hands, i.e. 40 in, tall) and even more so by the forms and colour of its stripes.

He then referred to an unidentified equid seen by travelling French naturalist François Le Vaillant (1753-1824), presumably in South Africa's Cape as this is where he had spent time collecting animal specimens, and which he'd named the zebre but was apparently different from those zebras already known from there. Some zoological authorities, including Dutch zoologist Coenraad Temminck (whose father was Le Vaillant's employer) had considered the isabella quagga to be Le Vaillant's zebre, but Hamilton Smith disagreed with their opinion.

The remainder of Hamilton Smith's account consisted of a verbal description of the isabella quagga skin (augmenting the engraving of this animal portrayed in the living state), which included his belief that it was an adult rather than a juvenile specimen despite its small size, and was not albinistic. Conversely, when concluding his account by mentioning that a Dr Leach had believed the skin (which still existed at the British Museum at this time) to have originally come from the Cape, he conceded that Leach had considered its pale colouration, especially its white stripes, to be due to the animal's 'nonage' (young age).

Moreover, it should be noted here that back in Hamilton Smith's time, there was a somewhat naïve but very prevalent tendency among taxonomists to over-emphasise the significance of individual variation within species, leading to the splitting off and naming of many spurious animal species that in reality were nothing more than freakishly-coloured/patterned individuals of already known, confirmed species. Eventually, however, such shortcomings were rectified by lumping these unsubstantiated species back together – as happened with the isabella quagga, subsequently being subsumed by zoologists into the normal quagga species (now subspecies).

Hamilton Smith's undated full-colour wtarcolour painting of the isabella quagga (public domain)

As for the full-colour isabella quagga illustration: it is an undated watercolour painting, again by Hamilton Smith, and is contained with various others of his watercolours in an unpublished manuscript by him held in the library and archives of London's Natural History Museum. Moreover, this beautiful painting remained unpublished until as recently as 2010, when it appeared in a Zeitschrift des Kolner Zoos article on quaggas by Lothar Schwahle and Wolfgang Wozniak.

Hamilton Smith's two illustrations readily confirm my early deductions as to the isabella quagga's likely appearance – namely, an aberrantly pale, isabelline-coloured quagga with only very faint, white striping.

Having viewed several comprehensive lists of quagga material currently housed in museums worldwide, I can confirm Lydekker's statement that the isabella quagga skin deposited by Burchell at what is now London's Natural History Museum is no longer there, and is therefore lost. Presumably it was discarded due to its very poor condition, but a tragic loss nonetheless of such an exceptional, unique specimen, and which nowadays might well have yielded much useful information via DNA tests conducte3d upon samples of this skin's tissues.

Yet despite the isabella quagga having long since been reduced in status from a taxonomically-discrete species to a non-taxonomic mutant oddity, its delicate pallid beauty deserves to be remembered and celebrated. So I am very glad that I discovered this elegant animal hidden away as the briefest of footnotes within the dusty archives of the past, and have been able to revive it, even if only in words and pictures, within this present article, written up at last.

Alongside a mounted quagga specimen at Tring Natural History Museum, England (© Dr Karl Shuker)



  1. I believe that the second illustration of the “isabelline quagga” that you show here is not actually an engraving but an original
    watercolour. It also looks to be very much in the style of Charles Hamilton Smith himself. Finally as an original watercolour it seems to have remained unpublished during the Nineteenth Century at least. Hence I do not think that there is any book that it actually came from.

    I see from Wikimedia Commons that the original watercolour by Smith of the engraving is now held by the Yale Center for British Art.

    I also see that both the engraving and the watercolour of the “isabelline quagga” that you show appear on the website www.messybeast.com

    I do not know where this watercolour is now held but perhaps the owner of this website might be able to help you.

    I was made aware through an online newsletter from the Rhino Resource Centre by Kees Rookmaaker that several similar Smith watercolours of other animals with the background blocked in have been and are being sold by the Arader Galleries in Philadelphia. Yet more were presented as the Coulton portfolio to the Zoological Society of London by their former secretary the late Professor McNeill Alexander.

    As to the fate of the specimen it might just have been passed onto a local museum but who knows.

    I hope that this helps!

    1. Yes indeed, thanks for your interesting thoughts and information. Yes, I saw the Messybeast inclusion of the two images but it contains no source info or background details for them. There is a German paper that includes the second illustration, which I hope to obtain, as that might give an original published source for it; alternatively, as you suggest, it may indeed have remained unpublished throughout the 19th Century.

    2. I've now obtained the 2010 German paper (courtesy of German friend Markus Hemmler - thanks Markus!), which confirms that the painting is indeed an undated watercolour by Hamilton Smith, and which remained unpublished until it appeared in this German paper, so I've now updated my above article accordingly.

  2. I think that I have found the same paper online by Schlawe and Wozniak from 2010 as was sent to you. The authors seemed to be unaware of the existence of the watercolour in the Yale Center for British Art upon which the engraving was based and because they were unimpressed by this engraving they suggested that the watercolour that you have shown should be the iconotype instead. I also see that they have reproduced this watercolour courtesy of the London Natural History Museum.

    I had not until now seen any reference to the NHM having had any of Smith’s work. According to Sotheby’s most of this was posthumously given to and then apparently sold by the Plymouth Institution (now Athenaeum). Rothschild might have bought this and perhaps other similar watercolours since he seems to have been particularly interested in the the horse family and then bequethed it to the NHM. I assume that the NHM still has this and maybe other watercolours by Smith.

    R.e. the specimen itself, it is referred to on page 276 in “Catalogue of the Specimens of Mammalia in the Collection of the British Museum” by John Edward Gray published in 1850 as follows: -

    “LeVaillant, as Col. Smith observes, only saw and did not possess the Ane Isabelle. The specimen in the collection of the British Museum described and figured by Col. H. Smith was certainly only a young Quagga in a very imperfect condition, having lost nearly the whole of its fur before it was stuffed. It was presented by Dr. Burchell as the skin of a Quagga.”


    So perhaps it was destroyed on the grounds of it being in very poor condition, maybe after it was superseded by another specimen.

    Gray also refers to this specimen as being “pale brown” in pages 246 to 247 of Part Two of Volume One of the Zoological Journal published in June 1824.


    Going on Smith’s watercolours and what he wrote about the specimen in his book on horses however, it seems that there were mutant yellow or golden quaggas just as yellow or golden striped plains zebras have been recorded more recently.

  3. Unfortunately I was only able to make my above comment trying to sign into my gmail account as anonymous. Mark Ambrus