Saturday, April 16, 2022

The Eccentric Naturalist

John James Audubon (1785–1851)
From John James Audubon: Writings & Drawings

“Devil fish / Diamond fish / Jack fish. NG [New Genus] Litholepis.” One of Rafinesque’s “discoveries” drawn in the notebook he kept on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, where he visited Audubon, 1818. The words to the right appear to be Ecailles belles coul. de tortue (“beautiful tortoise-colored scales”). Courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.
If you were to wander through the zoology section of an archival library and dust off a copy of Icthyologia Ohiensis, Or, Natural History of the Fishes Inhabiting the River Ohio and Its Tributary Streams, which was published in 1820, you might open the book to the following entry, one of dozens of allegedly new species and genera identified (and named) by the author, Constantine Samuel Rafinesque:
91st Species. Devil-Jack Diamond-fish. Litholepis adamantinus. Litholepe adamantin.

Snout obtuse as long as the head; head one fourth of total length; body fusiform blackish: dorsal and anal fins equal and with many rays: tail bilobed, lateral line obsolete. . . .

This may be reckoned the wonder of the Ohio. It is only found as far up as the falls, and probably lives also in the Mississippi. I have seen it, but only at a distance, and have been shown some of its singular scales. Wonderful stories are related concerning this fish, but I have principally relied upon the description and figure given me by Mr. Audubon. Its length is from 4 to 10 feet. One was caught which weighed 400 lbs. It lies sometimes asleep or motionless on the surface of the water, and may be mistaken for a log or a snag. It is impossible to take it in any other way than with the seine or a very strong hook, the prongs of the gig cannot pierce the scales which are as hard as flint, and even proof against lead balls! Its flesh is not good to eat. It is a voracious fish: its vulgar names are Diamond fish, (owing to its scales being cut like diamonds) Devil fish. Jack fish, Garjack, &c. . . . The whole body covered with large stone scales laying in oblique rows, they are conical, pentagonal, and pentaedral with equal sides, from half an inch to one inch in diameter, brown at first, but becoming of the colour of turtle shell when dry: they strike fire with steel! and are ball proof!
The monstrosity in question, with similar descriptions, is mentioned in Timothy Flint’s The History and Geography of the Mississippi Valley (1832), Frederick Marryat’s adventure novel Travels and Adventures of Monsieur Violet in California, Sonora, & Western Texas (1843), an article about fishing and hunting in Texas from The Sportsman in 1851, and numerous other publications, but its very existence defied naturalists for decades. Other than John James Audubon and (“only at a distance”) Rafinesque, nobody seems to have actually seen, much less caught one. Perhaps the “fish” was really an alligator-like reptile. Or, as ichthyologist David Starr Jordan suggested in the 1870s, Rafinesque’s entry was “erroneous in several respects, but unquestionably referring to the alligator-gar.”

Rafinesque’s book identified several other fish species that had not been confirmed in subsequent decades, and most of them had one thing in common: the person who had seen them first was Audubon. Finally, in 1886, Jordan uncovered the secret concerning “these singular genera, so like and yet so unlike to anything yet known.” It turned out that Audubon had supplied Rafinesque with drawings and descriptions of fish that didn’t exist, a story that had become family lore and was relayed by Audubon’s brother-in-law and occasional collaborator John Bachman before he died in 1874.

Born near Constantinople in 1783 and raised in Marseilles, Rafinesque became a successful merchant in Sicily before permanently immigrating to the United States in 1815 and quickly making a name for himself as an idiosyncratic, self-taught zoologist and botanist. In 1818 he visited Audubon and his family at their home in Henderson, Kentucky. Rafinesque’s writings indicate that he stayed there for eight days, which is confirmed (give or take a day) by contemporary documents, but when Audubon recounted the visit in “The Eccentric Naturalist” in 1831, he claimed it was three weeks. Or perhaps it just seemed that long. Audubon’s somewhat farcical chronicle of those “three weeks” certainly conveys how Rafinesque’s behavior tested his host’s patience. The repeated insistence in the essay that the visiting ichthyologist recorded in his works “only what he should himself see”—which was notoriously untrue—should have perhaps been a clue to future naturalists that everything connected to that visit wasn’t exactly as Audubon or Rafinesque had described it.

Thinly disguised as “M. de T.” in Audubon’s essay, Rafinesque had already earned a reputation as an unreliable gadfly, too eager to claim the discovery of new species that may not be new or distinct at all. “He is the best naturalist I am acquainted with, but he is too fond of novelty,” the botanist John Torrey wrote to his colleague Amos Eaton in 1817. “He finds too many new things. All is new! New!” The next year, Eaton expressed serious doubts about their young friend: “His name is absolutely becoming a substitute for egotism. Even the ladies here often adorn their witticisms with the name of Rafinesque, applied in the same. They talk of the science of Rafinesquism, meaning the most fulsome and disgusting manner of speaking of one’s own praise.”

Until recently scientists thought Audubon’s hoax was limited to eleven species of fanciful fish listed in Icthyologia Ohiensis. But in an article published in 2016, Neal Woodman added ten small mammals (including the “lion-tail jumping mouse” and the “mole lemming”) to the brachiopod, two birds, two plants, three snails, and three additional species of fish revealed by other scientists—all the products of Audubon’s imagination. Most were included elsewhere in Rafinesque’s writings—but without mention of Audubon—and had remained unexplained until facsimiles of Rafinesque’s journals had become more widely available to researchers.

Why Audubon created these hoaxes will never be known for certain. It might have been, as Jordan believed, subtle revenge for the destruction of his violin, an incident described with some hilarity in “The Eccentric Naturalist.” Or perhaps he was simply testing Rafinesque’s competence or his credulity (or “his sanity,” quips Woodman). In any case, Audubon may have thought that a naturalist who acknowledged the existence only of species that “he had himself seen” would not actually publish someone else’s “findings.” Moreover, once Icthyologia Ohiensis was printed, Audubon couldn’t expose the hoax without subjecting himself to the skepticism already surrounding Rafinesque’s methods of field research.

Audubon was hardly the only naturalist who engaged in such shenanigans. As an epilogue to his article, Woodman reprints a story related in 1910 by conservationist Charles Frederick Holder, who recalled the time he and Spencer Fullerton Baird, the Smithsonian’s first curator, met up with John Graham Bell, one of Audubon’s traveling companions:
Bell was telling his experiences with the great naturalist and how he almost had a serious break with him. Bell was traveling with Audubon, and every day new species were found; one day Bell said that he made up a bird with the head of a snipe, the body of something else, the wings and legs of another. Audubon had been away for a week, and when he returned Bell displayed the bird, saying that he had mounted it at once as it was in bad condition. Audubon was completely mystified and proportionately delighted. He described the new bird and sent the account to Europe, and it was weeks before Bell, then a young man, had the temerity to confess. When he did Audubon fell into a rage, but finally laughed, and acknowledged the cleverness of his assistant.
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Notes: In Homer’s The Odyssey, Mentor watched over Odysseus’s son Telemachus during the Trojan War. Nicholas Malebranche was a late-seventeenth-century priest and philosopher; a passage in his first and best-known work, The Search after Truth, accepts the veracity of a discovery by a young man who lacked only the “venerable beard” of an old one.

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"What an odd looking fellow!" said I to myself, as while walking by the river, I observed a man landing from a boat, with what I thought a bundle of dried clover on his back. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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