List of Figures

September 29, 2011

Iconic types

Exhibit A:
This somewhat naïve painting was made in 1774 by Georg Forster. Naturalist, travel writer, — and revolutionary! — he spent his formative years accompanying his father Johann Reinhold Forster on scientific expeditions around the world, including the famous second voyage of James Cook on HMS Resolution. On Ulietea (now Raiatea), one of the Society Islands in South Pacific, the team collected one specimen of a previously unknown bird. As an assistant to the expedition’s official naturalist, it was Georg’s job to record the acquired samples of local flora and fauna (there’s actually a picture showing him doing exactly that in Tahiti). Later, the specimen was sent to the collection of Joseph Banks (the renowned naturalist of Cook’s fist voyage, for whom the Forsters were a last-minute replacement). While there, it was examined and scientifically described by John Latham as a Bay Thrush. Just four years later, this important type specimen disappeared, nobody quite knows how. No living bird was seen again, either; the species was almost certainly extinct by 1850. Despite a considerable effort, no bones, eggs or skins could be found. Nothing. All that remains is this small watercolor.

Exhibit B:
This is another example of what is known as iconotype, an image used instead of the type specimen, when it’s destroyed, lost, or otherwise unavailable. For this particular species, though, the iconotype is not just a poor substitute. Described from this picture in 1915, White-throated Pigeon died out on its native Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea some 60 years prior; no specimen or skin was ever obtained. The unique depiction was produced by George Raper, a self-taught painter who was a midshipman on board HMS Sirius, flagship of the First Fleet bringing convicts to establish the first European colony in Australia.

September 26, 2011

Elephant in the book

Take a look at this page from an early 9th century French manuscript copy of Expositio Psalmorum by the 6th century Roman writer Cassiodorus:[1]

Just you look at this wonderful initial:

No, seriously, look:

Alongside three imaginary and highly stylized monsters, we find a surprisingly accurate sketch of an elephant![2][3] The depiction is faithful enough for us to identify the species: the iconic small floppy ears could only belong to an Asian elephant.

To understand just how unsual this is, you only have to see other pre-Renaissance examples:[4]

    First Bible of Charles the Bald (circa 846),
    BNF, ms. lat. 1, folio 328v, detail.
    Morgan Beatus (circa 940-945)
    Morgan Library, ms. M.644., f. 79r
    Bestiary of William the Clerk (13th century),
    Trinity College Library, ms. O.2.14
    Rochester Bestiary (circa 1230)
    British Library, Royal MS 12 F. xiii

The thing is, as you can guess, elephants were not a frequent sight in medieval Europe; nor was there a statue, painting or carving of an elephant, made by a person who actually saw one. All they had to base their images on were short, vague, and often inaccurate textual descriptions. Ironically, Cassiodorus himself wrote about elephants several times, including a passage in Expositio Psalmorum. Towards the end of the book, when explaining why, in Psalm 44, ivory houses are appropriate for virtuous women, he writes:[5]

The elephant to whom these tusks belong is said to be most chaste; among quadrupeds he is endowed with the highest intelligence, his intercourse with his mate is disciplined, and he enjoys no second spouse.

In one of his letters he goes into much more detail, saying among other things:[6]

these animals live in the flesh more than a thoudsand years

The living elephant … cannot get up again unaided. This is because it has no joints in its feet.

its breath … is said to be a remedy for the human headache.

So, what about the nicely delineated head in St-Denis manuscript? Actually, the very fact, that it is so much better than anything else of the period, suggests that the artist drew it from personal experience. Which immediately identifies the animal.

The only elephant to reach Europe, between the fall of the Roman Empire and until the 13th century, was Abulabaz, owned by the great Charlemagne. A gift from the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al-Rashid, Abulabaz lived at the emperor’s court from 802 to 810, where he was regularly exhibited. Understandably, he generated a lot of interest and excitement, so, it’s quite possible that the Expositio‘s artist made a journey to Aachen or Augsburg to see the mythical creature.

So, what we have here is probably a sketch of Charlemagne’s pet elephant. Which is quite something, considering no contemporary portrait of the emperor survives.


  1. Cassiodorus, Expositio Psalmorum (Saint-Denis Abbey, early 9th century). Bibliothèque nationale de France, manuscript Latin 2195. gallica
  2. Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts (2nd edition), pages 50,51,259. Phaidon, London, 1994.
  3. Bernhard Bischoff, Die Hofbibliothek Karls des Grossen (The Court Library of Charlemagne), in: Karl der Grosse, Lebenswerk und Nachlebeb (Düsseldorf, 1965-7),
    volume II, Das Geistige Leben (1965, edited by Bischoff), pages 233-234. Citation via [2], gallica and google.
  4. An exhaustive treatment of the subject can be found in: George C. Druce, The Elephant in Medieval Legend and Art,
    Journal of the Royal Archaeological Institute, Volume 76, London, 1919. scans at The Medieval Bestiary
  5. Cassiodorus, Explanation of the Psalms. Translated and annotated by P. G. Walsh. Paulist Press, 1990. Page 446. google books preview
  6. Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus, The Letters of Cassiodorus. The Echo Library, 2006. Pages 333-334. google books preview

April 25, 2010

Early evolutionary trees of life

Charles Darwin’s seminal On the Origin of Species wasn’t rich in figures. In fact, this diagram was its only illustration:

The funny thing is, it’s virtually unknown to non-specialists, whereas this scribble from Darwin’s notebooks is something of an evolutionary icon:

Of course, the “tree of life” (visual) metaphor had been used by naturalists for some 200 years before Darwin, but only as a representation of the history of life. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that evolutionary theories of one sort or another appeared, and so did evolutionary trees of life. To name a few: Augustin Augier had a very detailed one for plants in 1801[1]; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck published a sketchy diagram for animals in 1809[2]; Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, anonymously published by Robert Chambers in 1844, had an even sketchier one, where fish, reptiles, and birds are represented by branches from a path leading to mammals[3]; finally, in 1858, just a year before the Origin of Species, Heinrich Georg Bronn published a hypothetical phylogenetic tree labeled with letters[4].

A recent 2009 paper in Journal of the History of Biology[5] adds a new and marvelous image to this list. Please meet: the foldout diagram titled “Paleontological chart” from Edward Hitchcock’s Elementary Geology, first published in 1840[6]:

What’s wonderful about it (apart from the multiple roots, sick-cacti-like appearance and the hilarious crowns over men and palms) is that it wasn’t meant to be an evolutionary tree; furthermore, once a tree of life image became closely associated with Darwin, Hitchcock dropped it altogether. As the paper’s abstract puts it: “Whereas Lamarck, Chambers, Bronn, Darwin, and Haeckel saw some form of transmutation as the mechanism that created their ‘trees of life’, Hitchcock, like his contemporaries Agassiz and Miller, who also produced ‘trees of life’, saw a deity as the agent of change. Through each edition of his book Hitchcock denounced the newer transmutationist hypotheses of Lamarck, then Chambers, and finally Darwin in an 1860 edition that no longer presented his tree-like ‘paleontological chart’.”


  1. A. Augier, Essai d’une nouvelle classification des vegetaux. Lyon, 1801.
    The tree was rediscovered in 1983: P. F. Stevens, Augustin Augier’s “Arbre Botanique” (1801), a Remarkable Early Botanical Representation of
    the Natural System
    . Taxon, Vol. 32, No. 2 (May, 1983), pp. 203-211. JSTOR
  2. J.-B. Lamarck, Philosophie Zoologique. Paris, 1809. Google books
  3. R. Chambers, Vestiges of the natural history of creation. London, 1844. Scans
  4. H. G. Bronn, Untersuchungen über die Entwicklungs-Gesetze der organischen Welt während der Bildungszeit unserer Erd-Oberfläche. Stuttgart, 1958. Scans
  5. J. David Archibald, Edward Hitchcock’s Pre-Darwinian (1840) “Tree of Life”. Journal of the History of Biology (2009) 42:561–592. PDF
  6. E. Hitchcock, Elementary Geology. New York, 1840. Google books

April 22, 2010

Birds-of-Paradise: The Beginning.

As far as we know, the very first skins of birds-of-paradise were brought to Europe in 1522 by the surving crew members of the Magellan’s circumnavigation voyage. According to the diary of Antonio Pigafetta[1] (the only journal kept during the journey, apart from a formal logbook), the skins were a gift from the sultan of Bacan island (one of the Moluccas) for the emperor Charles V.

According to Pierre Belon’s Natural History of Birds[2], by the end of 1540s mounted birds of paradise “are a common sight in the cabinets of Europe and Turkey”. Nevertheless, when the first image of one was published in 1555 by Conrad Gessner in his famously bizarre “Historiae animalium”[3], it was totally unrecognizable:

The knowledge of the birds true appearance and habits hardly changed for the next century or so. A fine example of this is the set of illustrations in Ornithology, published in 1599 by one the most respected naturalists of the time, Ulisse Aldrovandi[4]:

While the first one is notable for being the first depiction of an identifiable species (Greater Bird-of-Paradise), the other three tell another story altogether. Agressive carcass preparation technique used at the time led the scientists to believe that the birds-of-paradise had no bones, entrails or legs. They were assumed to swim gently among the clouds, living only on sky dew and sun rays, never landing even to breed: female lays her eggs to a special cavity on the male’s back.

Some of these preconceptions proved to be very persistent. Illustrations to a book by John Johnston published as late as 1773[5] include both non-existent species (spot familiar faces!) and a barely recognizable King Bird-of-paradise colored to match a Greater Bird-of-Paradise:

But then you have to remember that European naturalists never saw a single alive specimen until 1825.


  1. A. Pigafetta, “Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo” (Report on the First Voyage Around the World). Paris, 1524-1534. Translated into countless languages and has never been out of print.
  2. P. Belon, L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux. Paris, 1555.
  3. C. Gessner, Historiae Animalium. Zurich, 1551-58, 1587. Best bits.
  4. U. Aldrovandi, Ornithologiae. Boloniae, 1599. Full scan. Birds-of-paradise section: pp. 806-816.
  5. J. Jonston, Histoire Naturelle et Raisonnée des differens oiseaux qui habitent le globe. Paris, 1773-74.

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