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How Audubon Pranked a Fellow Naturalist with a Bulletproof Fish

Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818. On the two pages shown are four fake fish described by Audubon: the Flatnose Doublefin, the Bigmouth Sturgeon, the Devil-Jack Diamond fish, and the Buffalo Carp Sucker. (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)

Field books capture essential information for ecological history but are often difficult to track down in scientific collections. The Field Book Project, launched in 2010 by the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian Institution Archives, is an initiative to catalogue field books, track their conservation, and make them accessible online.

Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives) (click to enlarge)

So far, the project has digitized over 500 field books and catalogued more than 7,500. A new grant from the Arcadia Fund, announced this fall, will add around 2,600 digitized field books over the next two years, accessible on the websites of the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center and the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL). Along with the Smithsonian Libraries, BHL joined the project in 2014.

“From my perspective, the field books are unique, rare, primary research materials for the study of biodiversity,” Julia Blase, Field Book project manager, told Hyperallergic. “They are used extensively by current scientists to provide context and add information to museum collections and to contemporary research studies.”

The field books digitized so far include those of Mary Agnes Chase, who studied Brazilian grasses in the early 20th century; ornithologist Florence Bailey, who from 1907 to 1911 worked in the American West; William Healey Dall, who in the 19th century was one of the first explorers of the Alaskan interior; and behaviorist Martin Moynihan, who from the 1950s to ’90s studied birds, often illustrating their vocalizations with vowels, words, and frenetic lines.

Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)

One of the more curious field books comes from Constantine Samuel Rafinesque and is a chronicle of the Constantinople-born naturalist’s trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky in 1818. Rafinesque was “a prolific traveler, collector of specimens, and author,” Blase explained. “His book Medical Flora of the United States was his most successful, and it is likely that many of the specimens he collected for study were recorded in his field books and document the diverse botanical species and the utilization of those plants by the local populations in an era very different from ours.”

In the book, his barely legible 1818 text is accompanied by small sketches of various species. However, a few of his fish were in fact fabrications, planted by none other than John James Audubon.

Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives) At right is the fake White-Eyes Barbot described by Audubon
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives) At right are the fake Black Dotted Perch and Ohio Red-Eye described by Audubon

Kira Cherrix, digital imaging specialist at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, explained this little-known ichthyology hoax in a post on the Field Book Project blog. Cherrix describes how, as a house guest in Audubon’s home in 1818, Rafinesque was obsessed with identifying new species. So Audubon decided to slip some mythical fish into his real drawings. Cherrix writes:

The most famous of these “fake fish” was called the Devil-Jack Diamond fish. In his book, Icthyologia Ohiensis, he describes the fish as being four to ten feet long with bulletproof scales. Rafinesque claimed to have seen one at a distance, but noted that they sometimes lie motionless on the surface and appear to look like logs.

By the time Rafinesque left, Audubon had convinced him of the existence of ten different imaginary fish. When Rafinesque published his findings, he gave Audubon credit for all of the fake species, often stating “I have not seen this species, but Mr. Audubon has communicated me a drawing of it.” At one point in his book, Rafinesque seems to doubt the accuracy of Audubon’s drawing stating “This genus rests altogether upon the authority of Mr. Audubon, who has presented me a drawing of the only species belonging to it. It appears very distinct if his drawing be correct; but it requires to be examined again. Is it only a Sturgeon incorrectly drawn?”

The prank eventually caught up with Audubon, costing him some credibility. And as the New York Times pointed out in August, there are in fact five “mystery birds” in his Birds of America that seem to be fictional. Audubon was quite serious with his bird work, however, only drawing from nature, so it’s likely they were mutations or hybrids of some sort. Meanwhile, the bulletproof Devil-Jack Diamond fish endures in Rafinesque’s field book, one of the more curious insights into the sometimes artificial history of biodiversity unearthed through the Field Book Project.

Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)
Notebook kept by Constantine Samuel Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818 (courtesy the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives)

View over 500 digitized field books from the Field Book Project online in the Biodiversity Heritage Library

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