“Various species grouped together according/ To their past beliefs”*…
Pranks are meant to be discovered—what’s the point in fooling someone if they never notice they’ve been fooled? But one 19th century prank, sprung by John James Audubon on another naturalist, was so extensive and so well executed that its full scope is only now coming to light.
The prank began when the French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque sought on Audubon on a journey down the Ohio River in 1818. Audubon was years away from publishing Birds in America, but even then he was known among colleagues for his ornithological drawings. Rafinesque was on the hunt for new species—plants in particular—and he imagined that Audubon might have unwittingly included some unnamed specimens in his sketches.
Rafinesque was an extremely enthusiastic namer of species: during his career as a naturalist, he named 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, approximately. He was self-taught, and the letter of introduction he handed to Audubon described him as “an odd fish.” When they met, Audubon noted, Rafinesque was wearing a “long loose coat…stained all over with the juice of plants,” a waistcoat “with enormous pockets” and a very long beard. Rafinesque was not known for his social graces; as John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, Audubon is the “only person on record” as actually liking him.
During their visit, though, Audubon fed Rafinesque descriptions of American creatures, including 11 species of fish that never really existed. Rafinesque duly jotted them down in his notebook and later proffered those descriptions as evidence of new species. For 50 or so years, those 11 fish remained in the scientific record as real species, despite their very unusual features, including bulletproof (!) scales.
By the 1870s, the truth about the fish had been discovered. But the fish were only part of Audubon’s prank…
* Don Van Vliet (Captain Beefheart), “Bills Corpse,” Trout Mask Replica
As we tease each other with taxonomy, we might recall that it was on this date in 2009 that a man riding his horse across the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin to San Francisco was stopped by the California Highway Patrol. The CHP, which judged the horse a danger to pedestrians and bicyclists who use the walkway and a distraction to drivers– who did indeed slow to a crawl– had the rider dismount and walk his mount back to the Marin side.