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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Friday, 14 September 2012

On This Day, 14 September; John Gould's birthday

*1804.
John Gould is becoming increasingly well known in Australia, though many of us in the natural history paddock have known of him for a very long time. There is an increasing literature about him, so I won't attempt more than an outline here. There are also some popular and persistent myths, which I would like to refute. He has often been dismissed as a mere biological entrepreneur; he was indeed an entrepreneur - like any natural history tour operator or natural history author. Given that I meet both those criteria, I may well be seen to have a jaundiced view, and of course I don't see it as a bad thing per se.  He has also been accused of taking credit for others' artistic work, but he never claimed such credit, and in fact did many of the sketches which his artists, including his wonderfully talented wife Elizabeth, completed and coloured.
Sand Goanna, Varanus gouldii, named for John Gould.
So who was he, for those not familiar? He was an Englishman who taught himself first taxidermy (he established himself when he got the gig of stuffing George IV's late lamented pet giraffe) then taxonomy; the Royal Zoological Society employed him in both capacities. In 1837 Charles Darwin, just back from the Beagle expedition which would, in time, change the scientific world, approached Gould to identify his Galapagos specimens. It was Gould, ironically a staunch creationist, which was the norm for the time, who recognised their significance. 

In 1838 he and Elizabeth sailed to Australia and spent two years here collecting specimens to describe and illustrate for a 'book', The Birds of Australia, which was actually 7 volumes (and a later supplement). Both the science and the art work are simply superb. (Thanks to the National Library of Australia we can all enjoy it here). He could have just written a popular account for sale, but his science was impeccable. A measure of that is that by my count he is the author of 175 Australian bird names and 39 mammal names which are still in use. By any standard, this is truly remarkable; sloppily applied names simply don't last, and even the normal processes of changing understanding of relationships inevitably leads to changes.
Gouldian Finch, Erythrura gouldiae, named by John Gould for Elizabeth Gould.
Above, Territory Wildlife Park near Darwin.
Below, flock of wild birds, mostly juveniles, Gregory River NP, Northern Territory
(muddy old slide, but just to prove I've seen them!)

 

Elizabeth died tragically at the age of just 37 in 1841, but John lived and worked on for another 40 years. The landscape of Australian bird and mammal taxonomy will never be the same again.

2 comments:

Beth said...

You won't believe it but on Friday 14th September I was visiting the Berlin Natural History Museum, en route to a meeting in Norway. I was lucky enough to be shown an original Gould volume from the Museum's library! Happy Birthday, John Gould!

Ian Fraser said...

Wow, what a privilege. I so envy you; well done and what an amazing coincidence re the date!