(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘species

“Various species grouped together according/ To their past beliefs”*…


A page from Constantine Rafinesque’s field notebook

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…

More at “Audubon Made Up At Least 28 Fake Species To Prank A Rival.”

* 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.

The offending equestrian returning to the Marin Headlands



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 3, 2016 at 1:01 am

Bye bye…

From Annalee Newitz at io9, “A History of Mass Extinctions on Earth.”

click on the image above, or here, for an enlarged version

As Annalee suggests,

It’s hard to decide whether this is a pessimistic chart or an optimistic one. Life always manages to find a way, even when there is a serious destruction of the planet.

To that point, note that the line graph in the middle charts “body counts”– how many species survived, which in some cases is nearly zero.

As we get in touch with our inner cockroach, we might wish Alles Gute zum Geburtstag to Austrian/German climate research pioneer Eduard Brückner; he was born on this date in 1862.  By analyzing direct and indirect observations of climatic fluctuations, he discovered (1887) the 35-year Brückner climatic cycle of swings between damp-cold and warm-dry conditions.  He considered the impact of climate change on the balance of power between nations and its economic significance in agricultural productivity, emigration, river transportation and the spreading of diseases. And perhaps most relevantly to the issues we face today, he initiated scientific debate on whether climate change should be interpreted as a natural function of the Earth system, or whether it was influenced by man’s activities (e.g., in his time, deforestation).

Brückner (source)

The miracle(s) of life…

The Barnados Threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae)

In the last issue of The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction?” sounds an alarm.  Observing that of the many species that have existed on earth, more than ninety-nine per cent have disappeared, and that these extinctions have tended to come in waves– five of which were especially broad– she ponders the possibility that we are at the lip of the sixth great wave of species disappearance.

While there’s every reason to worry that Kolbert is right, one notes that new species are uncovered every year– even in periods of relative decline in diversity.  Indeed, Wired provides a nifty catalogue of “10 Strange Species Discovered Last Year.”

The forces of life and variety fight back!

As we celebrate the creative impulse (in all of it forms and products), we might recall that it was on this date in 1919 that Arthur Eddington confirmed Einstein’s light-bending prediction– a part of The Theory of General Relativity– using photos of a solar eclipse.  Eddington’s paper the following year was the “debut” of Einstein’s theoretical work in most of the English-speaking world (and occasioned an urban legend: when a reporter supposedly suggested that “only three people understand relativity,”  Eddington was supposed to have jokingly replied “Oh, who’s the third?”)

One of Eddington’s photos of the 1919 solar eclipse

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 29, 2009 at 12:01 am

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