Representative animals


An elephant, a hippo, a monkey, and a giraffe — typical shorthand for “all the animals in the world”

Suppose you wanted to use a picture of a few animals to represent the idea of “all the animals in the world.” Which animals would you choose?

I did a Google image search for “Noah’s ark” clip art and analyzed the top 25 hits (excluding duplicate images, and images which show the ark without any animals on it). Ark images in the sample featured anywhere from 3 to 14 animal species, with an average of 7.96 (very close to the biblical “ark . . . wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water”).  Here are the top 10 most frequently included animals in that set.

  1. giraffe (92%)
  2. elephant (88%)
  3. lion (64%)
  4. monkey/ape (56%)
  5. zebra (52%)
  6. dove (40%)
  7. hippopotamus (32%)
  8. bird (generic passerine) (28%)
  9. sheep (24%)
  10. rhinoceros (20%)

The dove can be ignored, since it plays a special role in the Flood story and is included for that reason rather than as a representative of “all the animals in the world.” After the rhinoceros, there is no longer any clear ranking. (For example the crocodile/alligator, flamingo, pig, rabbit, snake, tiger, and turtle are all tied for 11th place.)

A few things strike me about this list. There is a very strong bias in favor of African animals and very large animals — making the giraffe and the elephant by far the most popular. (A whopping 84% of the arks in the sample feature both a giraffe and an elephant.) The sheep (or Eurasian origins) is the only definitely non-African animal on the list, and many of them are exclusively or iconically African — “safari animals.” The top ten heaviest land mammals in the world include two species of elephant, two species of rhinoceros, the giraffe, the hippopotamus, and four species of buffalo and bison. All of these also made the top ten ark species, with the exception of the buffalo/bison. (Surprisingly, not a single ark in the sample included a bovine of any description!)

Other surprising omissions are the dog (no canines on any arks in the sample) and the deer (on two arks only), which I would have thought would be the quintessential domestic and wild species, respectively. Given the biblical context, the relative lack of typically “biblical” or Middle Eastern animals, such as the camel and the donkey, is also somewhat surprising.

I would guess that what we are seeing here is the influence of the modern zoo. When moderns think of a vast collection of animals, they subconsciously think of a zoo — and zoos naturally tend to showcase animals that are large and exotic. No one goes to the zoo to see dogs, deer, and cows.