Thursday 19 July 2012

History of a confusion (and 4)

Read part 3


Frierich Wilhelm Hemprich met Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg in Berlin and they became friends. Both were students under Martin Hinrich Lichtenstein who  proposed them as naturalists for an expedition to Egypt in 1820. They travelled along the Nile, Palestine, Lebanon, Sinai, the Red Sea and Eritrea, gathering tens of thousands of specimens. In Massawa, Eritrea, in 1825, while organising their travel to the Highlands of Abyssinia, Hemprich died of fever and was buried on the island of Toalul.
Among the thousands of species collected they shot two birds of an unknown species that they called Ibis comatus ("hairy ibis"). In memory of his dead friend, Ehrenberg decided to change the name into Ibis hemprichi in 1832. He published the results of their expedition on the Symbolae physicae where he shared the authorship with Hemprich.Nevertheless, the description was unvalid, nomem nudus. Eduard Rüppell, who has also participated in an expedition in the same area during the same period published the species as Ibis comatus, Ehrenberg.
More or less at the same time,  Johann Georg Wagler in1832 described Geronticus calvus from South Africa, but nobody realished that both species were related. It was in 1849 that Ibis comatus entered into that genus, becoming Geronticus comatus, but the authorship was attributed to Rüppell. By this time, Heinrich Gottlieb Ludwig Reichenbach published, in 1847, Die vollständigste Naturgeschichte der Sumpfvögel and  created a new genus for the species, calling it Comatibis comata

North Africa

In 1874 J.H. Gurney published Rambles of a naturalist in Egypt & other countries where he talks about the evidence that Geronticus comatus once existed in Egypt but that now "retired further south".

Between 1839 and 1842 Alphose Guichenot participated in an expedition whose results were published in 1850 in the  Exploration Scientifique de l'Algerie: pendant les annees 1840, 1841, 1842. Gichenot main speciality was fish and reptiles, but a great ornithologist also participated in the trip, François Levaillant. The name given to this bird was Ibis calvus.

Engravure by Clerge after a drawing by Levaillant from Exploration Scientifique de l'Algérie: pendant les années 1840, 1841, 1842 by A. Guichenot (1850)

Leonard Howard Lloyd Irby includes in his Ornithology of the Straits of Gibraltar (1895) a reference to Ibis comatus on Tangier and Mogador, in Morocco.


The first record for science on a big Northern Bald Ibis colony in Bireçik, besides the Euphrates in Turkey was C.G. Danford who published a second report on his trip to Turkey in 1880: A further contribution to the ornithology of Asia Minor
Other travellers had recorded this before outside the scientific journals. This was the case of Josef Cernik, engineer who stayed at Birecik in 1873. Before that, in 1839, William Francis Ainsworth recorded the ibis from Bireçik and also from Yaylak, 70 km above Bireçik in the Euphrates valley. The colony counted thousands of birds during 19th century until, at least, the 1930s. In 1954, Cafer Turkmen took the first pictures of kelaynak at Bireçik.

Rothschild et al. 1897

Henry Eeles Dresser published his History of the Birds of Europe between 1871-1881 He describes Ibis comata, Redcheeked ibis, from Turkey and North Africa, but don’t even mention it from Europe. He quotes Tristam who saw the bird in Laghouat, Algeria. 

Somebody had to realise that the abundant material comming from Turkey and North Africa corresponded to the same species that was widely described for Europe. It was Lionel Walter RothschildErnst Hartert and Otto Kleinschmidt who first published the evidence, as we already mentioned, based on a specimen from Bireçik and the illustrations by Albin and others. 

Friday 13 July 2012

East Population update: Odeinat back in Southern Saudi Arabia

Migration started again for the Syrian ibis, and confirming a report from the wardens in Palmyra that the birds had left the colony, Odeinat has already departed and made a very fast journey down to NE of Jazan, in Saudi Arabia, quite near to a previously favoured area.

Thursday 12 July 2012

History of a confusion (3)

Read part 2

An European species?

Johann Andreas Naumann (1744-1826), the namegiver of some birds like lesser kestrel, Falco naumanni, was a farmer and amateur ornithologist who started an important collection of birds which is still preserved. He was also father of Johann Friederich (1780-1857) and Carl Andreas (1786-1854) who continued and enlarged the family collection. The elder is considered the father of European ornithology and is the author of Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas, one important work on the birds of Central Europe. 
In this work, Otto Kleinschmidt illustrated a pair of Northern Bald Ibis with an alpine landscape in the ground.
By this time, the species was extinct in Europe. Two years before the publication, in 1899, of Naturgeschichte der Vögel Mitteleuropas a trio of naturalist had published one important paper.
The threesome was formed by Lionel Walter Rothschild, Ernst Hartert and Otto Kleinschmidt. Rothschild was a member of the Rothschild financial dynasty, one of the wealthiest families in the world. He wanted to run a zoological museum since his childhood, and he amassed the largest zoological collection ever owned by a private person, with millions of insects and hundred of thousands of vertebrate specimens. Hartert was a German zoologist who held the ornithological curator position during almost 40 years at Rothschild museum and was also responsible of the museum's quaterly publication Novitates Zoologicae. Kleinschmidt was a German pastor, theologist and ornithologist who was precursor of the idea of Formenkreise or superspecies.
The paper was entitled Comatibis eremita (Linn.), a European bird. Why should be this a surprise? We have seen that Northern bald ibis was a species well known in Europe. Besides the different works that described the species since 16th century, illustrations, legal documents and popular names prove that the species existed.
Since the first descriptions by Gesner or Belon, many authors have quoted previous ones while the species was probably declining. Most of them never saw the species and just compiled information previously published.

Decline and fall into oblivion 

As we already show, most of 17th century authors just used images already published (see parts 1 and 2 of this series).

Eleazar Weiss was a German professional painter who settled in England in 1707, where he married and raised a family, changing his name to Albin. He earned his living by making watercolours of the collections of wealthy patrons. The Natural History of Birds was done late in his life and was the first large English work on ornithology. The copper plates were hand-coloured by himself and his daughter Elizabeth and published initially in London from 1731-1738. Eleazar Albin was probably one of the last to describe an European northern bald ibis from a stuffed specimen, from the collection of Sir Thomas Lowther, a landowner from Yorkshire
He doesn't mention any of the confusing previous works, gives new information about the bird and writes in present tense, suggesting that most of the information was, to his knowledge, recent. Albin writes they build for the moſt part in high Walls of demoliſhed or ruinous Towers which are common in Switzerland and later The young ones are commended for good Meat and county a Dainty; their Fleſh is ſweet and their Bones tender and, again, ... deſert places; where they build in Rocks and old forſaken Towers.
Even if Thoſe that take them out of the Neſts, are wont to leave one in each, that they may the more willingly return the following Year this wasn't enough to reduce the decline of the species. 

In 1760,  Mathurin-Jacques Brisson in his Ornithologie introduces again new information about Coracia cristata, specially about the feathers and their greenish gloss under the sun, having probably a direct knowledge of the bird. He still includes our species among crows. 
In 1776, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Count of Buffondescribes still the Coracias huppé or Sonneur (Bell ringer, due to the call made by this bird who some persons find similar to the sound of cowbells). He stills have no doubt about the presence of the bird in Switzerland and he even talks about a dissection of its stomach to find mole-crickets inside.

John Latham (1740 – 1837) in his work A general synopsis of birds published in 1781, describes our species among corvids, following the tradition, but showing the similarity with ibis. It seems that the author uses indirect references.
There's no illustration of the species, but the work was translated into German by Johann Matthäus Bechstein (1757-1822) who called it Allgemeine Übersicht der Vögel (1791–1812). This author includes a plate with a Waldrapp. The illustration could be inspired by Albin's, but it's much more simple and added some water besides the bird, maybe influenced by other descriptions that considered it as an aquatic bird. On the same page we can see a cuckoo's rufous phase adult female.

In 1789, a series of letters from William Coxe to William Melmoth compilled into Travels in Switzerland, and in the country of the Grisons, says that This bird is entirely unknown to M. Sprungli, though said to be a native of the Swiss mountains. He took great pains to discover it, but in vain; and suspects, after all, that if it does really exist, it is only a variety of the preceding (talks about Corvus Graculus, Red-legged Crow, currently Pyrrhocorax graculus, Alpine chough). 
It seems that, between the realistic descriptions of the bird done by Albin or Buffon and the letters from Cox, the bird became extinct or extremely rare. 

A French dictionnary on Natural Sciences published in 1818 doubts the existence of the species and describes how the names where used for other species. Some authors started thinking that it was a legendary creature, an animal that never existed.

Read part 4

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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