Category Archives: Scientific History

What the Heck?

Once upon a time in South Africa, there lived a curious zebra that only had half its stripes. It was called the Quagga, and the Dutch and British colonialists didn’t know quite what to make of it, for it only had stripes on the front half of its body, and those stripes were so variable in their waviness that naturalists couldn’t be sure if there was only one species, or many. While the scientists pondered this question, the hunters kindly answered for it for them by blasting the quagga into extinction. Now there were no species!

Then, in 1971, a South African naturalist named Reinhold Rau, following a challenge proposed by German biologist Lutz Heck, decided to try to bring back the quagga, even though the last one had died in a zoo in 1840. After all, what is a quagga but a zebra with a plain brown butt? DNA analysis of quagga remains in 1980 further encouraged Rau: it turned out that the quagga was not its own species, but a sub-species of Plains Zebras. Rau embarked on his mad mission, visiting the world’s zoos and selecting Plains Zebras to breed. Finally, in 2005, a foal named Henry was born with the trademark quagga quirks. Party up front, business in the back. But Henry presented a new conundrum: if it walks like a quagga, and eats like a quagga, and is striped like a quagga, is it a quagga? Is it possible to recreate natural selection through artificial selection? Can you bring an extinct species back from the dead? Well, the quagga isn’t the first animal we’ve tried to put back together from missing pieces.

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The Horror

January 5, 1929 — I have now fully resolved to kill Doctor Henry Moore, and a recent incident has shown me how I shall do it… A party from Uganda brought in a black with a queer illness which I can’t yet diagnose. He was lethargic, with a very low temperature, and shuffled in a peculiar way. Most of the others were afraid of him and said he was under some kind of witch-doctor spell; but Gobo, the interpreter, said he had been bitten by an insect. Spectral-looking — I don’t wonder the boys lay it to black magic. They seem to have seen cases like it before, and say there’s really nothing to do about it.
— H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death,” 1933

The Kingdom of Mali, 1375. It is the golden age of this African empire, with trade flourishing between its polar cities of Marrakesh and Timbuktu. Islam is growing here in Central Africa, due to a persuasive peace between local Central Africans and educated immigrant Arabs. But the kingdom is ruled by a cruel and arrogant despot, Sultan Diata II, whose lavish train of elephants, slaves, and golden carriages on his pilgrimage to Mecca made the continent gasp at his ostentatious display of wealth. Unfortunately for Diata, his days of opulence are numbered. The North African historian Ibn Khaldoun wrote that the Sultan “had been smitten with the sleeping sickness, which frequently affects the inhabitants of that region, especially the chieftains… Those afflicted are virtually never awake or alert. Sultan Diata had suffered for a duration of two years, after which, he died.”

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Dire Straits

Today’s post marks the end of Old Dead White Naturalist Guy Week. I hope you’ve had as much fun as I have! I believe I could start another blog just honoring naturalists and explorers, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the best explorers were among the most humble, or unlucky, and left no portraits or travelogues. Such is the case of Georg Wilhelm Steller and his harrowing story of survival in the Arctic.

Steller was a German naturalist living in Russia in the first half of the 18th century. He became a second-hand expert in the fauna of Siberia when he married the widow of Daniel Gottlieb Messerschmidt, a colleague and fellow German naturalist expat, whose notes from his Siberian expeditions he acquired in the deal. Siberia had been explored by so few scientists at the time that simply owning Messerschmidt’s papers made Steller the top authority on the subject. So when Captain Commander Vitus Bering, he of the Sea and the Strait, took on an expedition to Kamchatka, it of the Risk board, Steller was tapped to be his naturalist.

The expedition reached Kamchatka by land, then set sail in two ships, the St. Peter and the St. Paul, for North America. Steller maintained an uneasy relationship with the ship’s crew, largely made of illiterate roughnecks who wouldn’t listen to the smartypants egghead when he told them that For crying out loud, Alaska is north, you morons. NORTH! After all, they were lost, and beginning to run out of provisions. When the sailors finally took Steller’s navigational advice, they indeed found Alaska, and became the first Europeans to set foot on what would become our 49th State. Though they spent only 3 days there, Steller was able to describe an incredible number of species new to science, including the Steller’s Jay and the sea otter.

Capt. Bering, having planted Russia’s flag, decided it was time to head home, and ordered the ships to head for the island of Bolshya Zemlya. The St. Paul stayed on course, but the St. Peter got lost and damaged in a storm and was shipwrecked on a frigid, windswept island, unable to return. Bering and Steller were aboard the St. Peter.

Like Gilligan’s Island, except there are no coconuts and it’s -40 degrees F.

What is a naturalist to do when he is marooned on an Arctic island, surrounded by stubborn idiots, starving as foxes steal their remaining food and a deadly winter approaches from the South? He keeps on Naturalizing! It turns out that being the only one aboard who knows about plants and animals is handy when it comes to wilderness survival. Previously scorned by the sailors, Steller assumed leadership over the miserable expedition. He taught the freezing crew how to trap animals for their pelts. When the crew started dying of scurvy, Steller collected plants to boil for Vitamin C. He hunted the local animals for food, and scientifically described them as well: the Steller’s Sea Lion, the Northern Fur Seal, the Steller’s Eider, and the Steller’s Sea Eagle, the heaviest eagle in the world. Of all the plants and animals Steller discovered on that frozen rock, one gained its fame for being as unlucky as its discoverer: the Steller’s Sea Cow.

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The Rogue Taxidermist

A proper 18th century English naturalist does not wear a crew cut.

He also does not pretend to be a dog and bite his dinner guests under the table. He never rides a crocodile. He never punches out a python. When visiting the Vatican, a proper naturalist does not scale the roof of St. Peter’s. The Pope should not have to tell him to remove his gloves from the lightning rod this instant. It is unseemly for a naturalist to traverse South America entirely barefoot. And it is downright unheard-of for a naturalist to put one specimen’s head on another specimen’s body for the express purpose of making fun of the Protestants. But Charles Waterton, known to all as The Squire, was not a proper naturalist.

The Squire abides.

If Alexander von Humboldt was the paragon of a scientifically reasonable European naturalist in South America, Charles Waterton was his opposite. If Humboldt was the hero, Waterton was the joker. Whether The Squire was simply an aristocratic eccentric or a dangerously unhinged, bat-shit crazy lunatic, well, you decide.

Born to a Catholic noble family whose lineage included eight saints and four historical figures found in the works of Shakespeare, Waterton’s hyperactivity and rambunctiousness defied his blueblood upbringing and pushed him toward naturalism and exploration from an early age. Though he never discovered any species, or even bothered using the scientific names of the ones he studied, he was a keen observer of animal behavior. Basing his explorations around his family estate in British Guiana, he contributed to Europe’s understanding of neotropical fauna, and published a wildly popular memoir of his travels called Wanderings in South America that inspired a young Charles Darwin and, later, an even younger Alfred Russell Wallace to set sail for the continent.

The Squire’s eccentricities were innumerable. When a doctor told him to put his injured foot under running water, he went to Niagara Falls. He was a devotee of the medical practice of bloodletting — considered obsolete quackery even in his day — and wanted so badly to be bitten by a vampire bat that he maintained a habit of sleeping with his big toe uncovered to bait one. (He never succeeded.) He fell in love with his wife at first sight… at her baptism. She was the daughter of an Arawak princess and a Scottish nobleman and colleague, and at the infant’s baptism he fell in love and decided there and then that she was the girl he was going to marry. After that, he planned his expeditions so that they traveled through her small Guianan village, so that he could visit and check up on her. When she was seventeen, he took her away to England and married her. She died the next year, giving birth to their son. After that, and for the rest of his life, he always slept on the floor with a thin blanket and a wooden block for a pillow, out of equal parts grief and guilt. In Waterton’s later years, he established the world’s first nature preserve around his English estate, and became one of the world’s first opponents of pollution when chemicals from a nearby soap factory began affecting the waterfowl. He kept his propensity for walking around his grounds barefoot and climbing both trees and walls without ladders (which he deeply distrusted.)

Besides scientific experimentation, he had two major hobbies. The first was writing essays damning his scientific nemeses, namely John James Audubon and Charles Darwin. In truth, he considered most scientists his enemies, as he was regarded as an unhinged kook by the naturalist community. The most minor disagreements set him ranting and raving; after a manifesto-length screed against Audubon spurred by some negligible quibble over the olfactory faculties of vultures, one prominent scientist declared him “stark, staring mad.” When magazines would no longer publish his invectives, he printed them on pamphlets and sent them to everyone.

His second hobby, and perhaps his greatest legacy, was taxidermy. Today, taxidermy seems to be strictly for redneck hunters who want that 8-pointer on their wall, and the Norman Bates types with a death fetish. But for most of the history of zoology, taxidermy was an essential skill for any naturalist. It was simply too difficult to capture a live animal and transport it out of the jungle and over the ocean. Alfred Russell Wallace financed his journeys in the South Pacific by shooting and stuffing birds-of-paradise, and Audubon’s paintings were certainly not modeled on live birds. Charles Waterton was a master taxidermist, inventing his own procedure using something he called “sublimate of mercury.” (In fact, he taught his unique procedure to a slave at his British Guiana estate, and that slave, later freed and practicing taxidermy in Scotland, ended up teaching The Squire’s future nemesis Charles Darwin the art.) Greater than his gift for preservation, though, was his creativity. For many of the specimens that The Squire sent home from Guiana had no likeness to any creature, living or previously imagined.

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His animal collections from the Amazon rainforest made lesser zoologists weep. He traveled into the jungle with the finest scientific equipment of his time, each instrument cradled in its own velvet-lined box. Thomas Jefferson once invited him to the White House, just to bask in his genius. Where ever he walked, he got a standing ovation. He was called “the greatest scientific explorer who ever lived”… by Charles Darwin.

He was… the most interesting naturalist in the world.

Ich weiß nicht immer Bier trinken, aber wenn ich das tue, ziehe ich Zwei XX.

That Alexander von Humboldt does not enjoy household name recognition is a testament to American scientific illiteracy. During the 19th century, he enjoyed rock star status around the world for his contributions to geology, meteorology, and zoology, and for his books recounting his adventures in the jungles of Latin America. Edgar Allan Poe dedicated his last poem to him. “Every scientist is a descendant of Humboldt,” said Emil du Bois-Reymond, the father of neurology. “He is the true discoverer of America,” said Simón Bolívar.

Though the word “ecology” didn’t exist yet, Humboldt was among the first scientists to view nature as a holistic, interconnected web, and as such he studied everything about a place’s environment wherever he traveled, from barometric pressure to soil samples. Scientific data, not religion or ideals, ruled his discipline to a degree never before achieved in field biology. During his long career, he advanced the science of volcanism, tested the bioluminescent properties of jellyfish and the electrogenerative powers of electric eels, dissected the larynx of the howler monkey, realized the use of bat guano as a fertilizer, figured out the correlation between plant species and altitude, discovered ocean currents and weather patterns, made the only reliable map of South America at the time, and met such species as the Humboldt penguin, the colossal Humboldt squid, and a subspecies of Amazon river dolphin living in the Orinoco river, Inia geoffrensis humboldtiana.

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Altitude & Apotheosis

At a cruising altitude of 30,000 feet, an airplane pilot doesn’t expect to hit roadkill. After all, Mount Everest, the world’s tallest mountain, is 29,029 feet above sea level, and the paper-thin air at its peak is hardly substantial enough for any animal to breathe for long. If you’ve ever been on a plane, you know what 30,000 feet looks like: far above the clouds, you can’t see cars on the road, but you can see the ends of the Earth. Imagine, then, the surprise of that pilot flying over Côte d’Ivoire in 1973 on a transcontinental trip, breathlessly calling in to air traffic control, Abidjan, this is TWA Flight 498 at a cruising altitude of 11,000 meters. And I think… I think we just hit a bird.

Rüppell’s Griffon Vulture is the highest-flying bird in the world, reaching a world-record 36,100 feet above sea level — 14 miles high. (The first-place reward for that particular vulture was to be sucked into a jet’s turbines. No capes!) It can achieve this dizzying height because of its unique blood, which contains a special hemoglobin agent called alpha-D which bonds with oxygen extremely efficiently. But it’s one thing to know how it survives in the upper troposphere, and another to know why any animal would remove itself so far from the Earth.

The vulture was named for Eduard Rüppell, a German naturalist on tour in Northern Africa in the 1820’s and 30’s. Rüppell, being from a wealthy and educated family, was supremely comfortable back at home, yet chose one of the most uncomfortable places for a Northern European to explore: the Sahara and the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Egypt. Essentially, he was sauerkraut on toast. But his contributions to zoology opened up the study of a region heretofore unknown to Western science: the desert ecosytem. Rüppell was the first biologst to speculate on why the desert fox has enormous ears (in, of course, a pre-Darwinian way) and observe the scimitar oryx in situ. And watching those minute specks wheeling above him in a blindingly blue sky until they disappeared from sight, he considered the vulture.

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The Heavenly Zoo of Ernst Haeckel

If you asked who my favorite wildlife illustrator of all time is, the answer might surprise you. I wouldn’t choose Audubon, with his awkward flamingos, or Sibley with his scientific field guide portraiture, or even a modern master like Peter Schouten. (Twenty points if you can name this animal, regular readers!) No, my heart belongs to the proto-Art Nouveau stylings of a 19th century German naturalist who was all at once romantic, revolutionary, infuriating, misguided, and ultimately, necessary.

Ernst Haeckel was a zoologist, anatomist, and natural philosopher whose ideas shook the scientific world. He discovered the Kingdom of Protista, the eukaryotic microscopic organisms which contain the algae family and which, though still controversial, remains among biology’s “Fave Five.” While most naturalists are fortunate to discover a species or genus, and the occasional scientist discovers a phylum, it takes huge intellectual gonads to discover an entire Kingdom. Oh, he also invented the word and the idea of a “phylum.” Likewise, he also coined several other words indispensable to modern science, such as “phylogeny,” “anthropogeny,” and my favorite, “ecology.” He proposed that psychology was really a product of physiology — essentially, that one’s mind was a product of physical developments in the brain — which opened up, among other things, the modern disciplines of psychiatry and neurology. He floated the idea that the fossilized remains of human ancestors, which had not yet been discovered, would be found in Indonesia. His student, Eugene Dubois, took his advice and dug up the first Homo erectus: Java Man. And if that wasn’t enough, his Kunstformen der Natur singlehandedly redefined the art of wildlife illustrations.





That great medusa in the center he discovered and named Desmonema annasethe after his late wife, Anna Sethe. The flowing red tentacles reminded him of her ginger tresses. As I said, he was a Romantic.

It was Haeckel’s propensity toward the Romantic which clouded his otherwise brilliant scientific mind. He routinely hypothesized missing links and imaginary places — such as Lemuria — which would justify his evolutionary ideals. Though he was a friend, correspondent, and booster of Charles Darwin, he rejected the seemingly cruel theory of natural selection in favor of the more optimistic but outdated version of evolution called Lamarckism. He famously coined the phrase and theory “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” — in layman’s terms, that a fetus undergoes all the stages of evolution leading up to its ultimate development. The idea that a human fetus becomes, at various stages of development, a fish, a frog, a dog, and a monkey, is a sweet and tidy vision of evolution as a progressive journey toward an ultimate life form. It’s also wrong. That didn’t stop Haeckel from drastically altering his artwork to “prove” his confabulation.

Though it’s true that all vertebrates start out as gross little tadpole monsters.

The most disturbing aspect of his insistence on altering his science to fit his world view was his views on anthropogeny, the study of human origins. Why Haeckel agreed with Darwin that men were evolved from apelike ancestors, he didn’t believe that we were all evolved from the same apelike ancestor. In true German fashion, Haeckel believed that the races were essentially different species, with Germans being the “most evolved.” I don’t need to tell you who really cottoned to this idea.

But what’s really, really disturbing is how many pictures of Barack Obama turn up when you google “monkey hitler.”

So Ernst Haeckel was wrong as often as he was right, and usually in the extreme either way. His artwork shows almost everything you need to know about the man’s ideals; he was relentless in his endeavor to prove that nature was a place of order, balance, and beauty. And nowhere was this more evident than in his depictions of the protists he personally discovered: the radiolarians.

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