About Me

My photo

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.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

On This Day, 17 February; three biological birthdays

Actually, only one of today's three birthday boys was an Australian biologist, but all three live on in the names of familiar Australian organisms. They were three very different people indeed, in almost every way. In order of their years of birth, they were:

* Richard Pulteney, 1730, an English rural botanist and surgeon. He did a seven year apprenticeship to an apothecary, which permitted him to practise surgery! He wrote articles for The Gentleman’s Magazine, which would sound pretty dubious today but probably wasn’t then, given that his topics included the Linnaean system of plant classification, fungi and the sleep of plants! He also wrote botanical and medical papers for the Royal Society. At age 34 he went to Edinburgh University to become formally qualified in medicine, before continuing to London to become personal physician to his relative the Earl of Bath. In private practice he later prospered, and became very wealthy on the death of his father. He taught himself conchology (the study of shells) and became regarded as an authority. In addition to an 8-volume work on Linnaeus’ work he wrote a history of British botany. He left his collection of shells, minerals, herbs and books to the Linnean Society. The great English botanist and botanical patron Sir James Smith commemorated him with a familiar genus of 120 species of Australian peas, usually referred to as 'bush peas' (a singularly unhelpful name!), Pultenea.
Pultenea procumbens, Tinderry Nature Reserve. A common local species.
* Nicolas Baudin, 1754, was a French career naval officer who worked his way up through the ranks, and led exploratory and scientific expeditions to central and South America before being selected by Napoleon in 1830 to lead the third, and grandest, of the French exploratory expeditions to Australia on Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste.  It was superbly planned, even carrying a large library of the journals of Dampier, Cook, Phillip, Bligh and La Billardiere. They also carried passports from the British Government as protection from the Royal Navy; this was standard practice at the time, when science was seen as benefitting all humankind. Sadly the concept withered not long afterwards. 

Unfortunately living conditions on board were so bad and, according to the records (admittedly written by his opponents, who outlived him), Baudin was so appallingly rude, that more that 60 expeditioners, including virtually all the scientists and the three official artists, left the ship at the first available opportunity, in Mauritius. 

Baudin reached Cape Leeuwin in May 1801 and, ignoring instructions, sailed north along the coast to Timor, then on around Australia to Van Diemen's Land, rather than going straight to the latter. He had little choice in this though, as problems with the authorities in Mauritius meant that he was desperately short of supplies. In so doing he missed the chance to be the first to explore and chart much of the south coast, because in April 1802 he met Flinders at Encounter Bay in South Australia, where he learnt that Flinders had just done much of the job in the Investigator. Thus distracted by each other, they all managed not to notice the nearby mouth of the Murray River, though this was perhaps understandable and it may even have been closed at the time.
Encounter Bay, from the Murray Mouth.
Overall though, Baudin's survey was not thorough; he also sailed past Port Phillip Bay without noticing it! The management and supply of the expedition were terrible; many became ill and had to return home. Baudin himself died in Mauritius on the way home, but the survivors delivered 100,000 animal specimens of 2,500 species (nearly all of them new to science) in 80 crates, and a mountain of botanical material. 

Thirty years later Edward Lear (of Owl and the Pussycat fame) named an impressive Western Australian black-cockatoo Calyptorhynchus baudinii (Long-billed, or Baudin's, Black-Cockatoo) after him in a book of paintings. However I just discovered, to my chagrin, that I don't have the photo of this species that I thought I had, so you'll have to make do with one of the very similar Short-billed (Carnaby's) Black-Cockatoo C. latirostris; they are essentially identical apart from the beak. Sorry about that!


* Gerard Krefft 1830, was curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1860s. Though largely self-taught, he was probably the leading Australian vertebrate zoologist of his day. More importantly, he led the resistance of Australian science to the assumption that only European scientists were competent to study Australian biology. Born in Germany, he lived as a teenager in New York, making money selling his copies of Audubon paintings. He came to Australia in 1852 to work on the Victorian gold fields, joined the Blandowski expedition to the Murray Darling junction (which provided the only record of several mammal species in New South Wales, before pastoralism eliminated them) and was then employed to catalogue the expedition's collections. The museum trustees, a very powerful cross-section of the establishment, resented the fact that the Governor made the appointment (though it was a government establishment, paid for by government money). I suspect that his somewhat direct and even abrasive manner contributed to the problem. Nonetheless he became curator in 1864, and seems to have been a very good one. He was a champion of using museum specimens for public education – this was revolutionary for the time.

He had a very broad knowledge of zoology and geology, specialising in snakes. He wrote the book Snakes of Australia, and one on Australian mammals. He built up the museum collection and made an international reputation as a scientist, corresponding with Charles Darwin, as well as Richard Owen, the doyen of English anatomists, and leading US and German scientists. Significantly he became the first Australian zoologist to champion Darwin’s new theories of evolution. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Knight of the Crown of Italy. He reworked the Wellington Caves fossil sites, and it was over the interpretation of one of these fossils that he dared to clash famously and openly with Richard Owen, the world authority and a conservative creationist. This made him something of a hero with younger Australian scientists of that and subsequent generations. 

More ominously for him, he also clashed with the powerful trustees, accusing some of them (with justification it seems) of feathering their private collections at the museum’s expense. In retaliation they set up an enquiry into charges ranging from drunkenness to disobeying the trustees’ orders. He, perhaps reasonably, refused to defend himself until he’d seen the charges and evidence – this was refused until they had found him guilty and dismissed him! He refused to leave his quarters until they hired a couple of prize-fighters to break down his door and evict him. The courts later agreed with him that the trustees had no such power, but the parliament then dismissed him instead, withholding salaries owed until he agreed to relinquish his rights. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, given that the Treasurer, Attorney-General and Chief Justice were all trustees! He was demoralised and ruined, and much important research was lost and never published. He died bankrupt in 1881. This remains, in my mind, one of the most shameful episodes of Australian science history.

His legacy is the name Lasiorhinus krefftii, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat; a tough battler like Krefft, but also sadly threatened with extinction. Only a little over 100 of them survive in just 300 hectares of Epping Forest National Park in east central Queensland, where they are regarded as Critically Endangered, though once they extended all the way south to northern Victoria. I don't suppose I'll ever see one, and this statue is probably as close as I'll come.
Lasiorhinus kreftii, Clermont, Queensland
It's been a long post today - if you're still reading, thank you! 

Back on Wednesday to complete the tribute to the National Botanic Gardens.

4 comments:

Susan said...

I'm interested to see that Baudin travelled on a British passport just as Flinders did on a French passport, for the same reasons. I assume you know the Flinders papers are online?

Baudin's collecting may explain why the holotype for the Australian Water Dragon Physignathus lesueurii is housed by the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (although the authority is the British Museum director John Gray, the species is named after Lesueur, who was the naturalist on Baudin's expedition). Just speculating really -- Gray is really a generation after Lesueur, but it could have taken that long to wade through all the specimens and name them.

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, I understand that the practice of giving passports for free passage for scientific expeditions was fairly widespread at the time. Humboldt had one that gave him free access to the entire Spanish South American empire, and I have a feeling that the American colonies gave them out to British expeditions too (Cook, Vancouver?), even during the tricky times, but I can't at the moment sustain that.

I don't know why the type for P. lesueuri languished so long before Gray got to it (or rather, why no-one did so before that), but I'm sure you're right that the sheer volume of material flooding into European museums (not just from Baudin) overwhelmed the taxonomists. In fact the genus had only been named a couple years previously. Lesueur certainly collected it, but I don't know where. One day I'll do a post on him and his mate Peron.

Incidentally, it looks as though the recent proposal to change Eastern/Gippsland Water Dragons from Physignathus to Itellagama is being accepted. I can hear Martin howling about taxonomists, but it's based on the fact that it seems as though our lizard isn't that closely related to Green Water Dragon of SE Asia, the only other Physignathus. Since it got named first, ours has to the change.

sandra h said...

coincidentally, I've just today indexed an issue of Landscope (WA parks/conservation magazine, Summer 2012 issue), and it includes a beautifully illustrated article about Edward Lear and his Australian parrot lithographs (article includes his illustration of the type specimen of Baudin's cockatoo).

Susan said...

Lesueur collected the specimen at Parramatta apparently, and nothing changes in taxonomy -- a contact of mine at the MNHN has just published a paper about how long it takes for a new species to be described after being collected these days -- 28 years is the average.

So Martin would rather we had to add the phrase 'it isn't actually closely related to the SE Asian species, but we continue to call it Physignathus because otherwise people will get confused...' every time we wrote about Australian Water Dragons?

Thanks for the info -- I've got a blog post prepped on the species for this coming weekend -- we saw lots of them at Manly -- the other subsp.