Thursday, 5 July 2012

History of a confusion (2)

Belon, 1555

Pierre Belon
(from Wikimedia)
Let’s come further back to the past, again to 1555. Pierre Belon, wasn’t a typical naturalist of his time. He did one of the firsts scientific trips in history, to the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, including Greece, Turkey, Palestine, Arabia, Egypt … between 1546 and 1549.
He was killed in Bois de Boulogne, in Paris, when he was returning to Chateau de Madrid, where he lived.
L'Histoire de la nature des oyseaux is a great work but, unfortunately outshined by its contemporary and more complete Historia animalium by Conrad Gesner.

He describes the cormorant very clearly, giving data on its behaviour and habitat. For instance, he mentions that it is among the few web-footed birds that can roost on a branch. Nevertheless, the illustration cannot be more confusing.

Posture is atypical for a cormorant or any related species, but, more importantly, it has no webbed toes. Besides the lack of feather tuft, it resembles a compact NBI.  However, Belon says: Phalacrocorax & Coroni thalassios en Grec, Corvus aquaticus en Latin, Cormarant en Francoys. That is, bald raven (phalacrocorax) and sea crow (coroni thalassios) became synonyms to cormorant. There was always some confusion, apparently, between descriptions of Northern Bald Ibis and Cormorant, which caused, apparently, the transfer of the name Phalacrocorax from the one to the other. Some authors, like Gesner, or later, Aldrovandi, tried to clarify, but the statement by Belon started a deeper confusion.
Aldrovandi tried to correct the incongruence between the description and the image and “retouched” the illustration, with a position closer to a cormorant, and new legs and feet. If we reverse the plate, we can see that the head is almost identical with the body just in a different in position..

So, what is Phalacrocorax bellonii? A chimera, a hybrid animal with parts of several different birds?  But, which bird is depicted in the original plate by Belon? Probably, this author was over confident with the identity of the two separate species and he therefore took an image of a bald ibis and removed the tuft which he maybe assumed to be just an embellishment.

Jonston, 1657

Jan Jonston
(from Wikimedia)
Jan Jonston was born in the  Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth (the biggest European state at its time) from Scottish parents. After his studies in many Polish establishments, being a Calvinist he could not be admitted in the celebrated Jagiellonian University, in the very Catholic Cracovia, and so he had to go to Scotland to study in the less ancient but also renowned Saint Andrews University. He continued his training in several of the Holy Roman Empire’s Universities (today in Netherlands and Germany) finishing his studies in Botany and Medicine in Cambridge.
He published Historiae naturalis de avibus libri VI cum aeneis figuris in 1657 in Amsterdam, and the copperplates were made by Matthäus Merian, the elder who also copied previous images. In fact, Merian died in 1650, after a long illness, thus the plates should have been ready well before their publication. This work replicated the previous confusion about synonyms and identities, but at least Phalacrocorax Bellonii disappeared.
Again a virtual library, in this case from Strasbourg Universities, allows us to see the whole text.

On this detail from plate 47 we can see, again, the images taken from Gesner and Aldrovandi. Both are taken from the originals (and both are mirror images from the original prints). The text confirms the confusion. Aldrovandi’s bird is described as if it was a cormorant, even though it does not have webbed feet, and Jonston accepts to include it among web-footed birds.  He also criticised the inclusion of Gesner’s bird among web-footed species, even though it remains there.

There is a short text in French, probably also included in one French edition of Historiae naturalis (up to the 18th century). If checked carefully, we can see that the copper plates have been retouched or even redone, because there are some minor differences in feather detail.
Whoever prepared the plates, added between both NBI drawings, the name Corbeau Hupe (in current French would be corbeau huppe, crested raven). Maybe the author  could identify both images as the same species? The first name given by Linnaeus to Northern bald ibis was Upupa eremita. As Upupa are hoopoes, maybe the author of the short text was familiar with Systema naturae, or maybe the Swedish naturalist just took a popular name  for the bird.

A whole  century later, a curious François-Alexandre Aubert de La Chesnaye des Bois  was devoted to compiling and publishing a large number of  works in different fields. His Dictionnaire raisonné universel des animaux, ou le règne animal, consistant en quadrupèdes, cétacés, oiseaux, reptiles, poissons, insectes, vers, etc. published in 1759 includes corbeau de bois, forest raven, and records, almost verbatum, previous authors. His corbeau hupé (that is, crested crow) is not the same that appears in the Recueil. There are no images, but the description is unmistakable. He mentions the confusion of some concerning this species and former authors’ Phalacrocorax..

Read part 3

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