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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.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

On This Day, 27 June; John Latham's birthday

By the end of the 18th century, John Latham was widely regarded as the greatest ornithologist of his age. I'm unconvinced by that, but there is no doubt that circumstances alone ensured that he will always have a place in Australian ornithological history. He was at the height of his influence when bird specimens were flooding back from Australia (and elsewhere), ensuring that many of them passed through his hands; he was also hard-working and committed to his task.

John Latham, courtesy Wikipedia Commons
Born in London in 1840, he became a successful English doctor, but his passion was always natural history and especially ornithology. Sir Joseph Banks lent him many drawings from the Cook expeditions - many of which Latham promptly copied, and in many cases he used these copied sketches as the basis of scientific descriptions, with predictable results. He also received skins, though it was difficult to get them through the tropics intact, hence the significance of the drawings. The collection of botanist Alymer Lambert was also available to him, including works by various colonial artists including Thomas Watling. 

Even before this however he had been elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1775 and in 1788 was a moving force behind the formation of the immensely influential Linnean Society. His first great opus was the General Synopsis of Birds, published in six volumes from 1781 to 1785, in which he published the first descriptions of many Australian birds. However his great weakness was his failure at this time to appreciate the importance of the Linnaean system of unique binomial scientific names; basically he regarded Latin as foreign nonsense and couldn't see the point of it to an English scientist! One might then see an irony in his championing of the Linnean Society, or perhaps it was by way of atonement.

Glossy Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus lathami, Nowra, New South Wales.
This tribute to Latham was paid by Coenraad Temminck, an eminent Dutch ornithologist, a generation younger than Latham; indeed when he named this magnificent - and now threatened - cockatoo in 1807, he was still only 29.
By 1791 he had realised his error and did adopt the system in his Index Ornithologicus, where he assigned Linnaean species names to his early idiosyncratic vernacular descriptions. By then however many of them had already been made invalid by others who had tidied up after him, applying their own names. Not all however, and many of Australia's most familiar birds bear the epithet Latham, indicating his authorship - Emu, Black Swan, Wedge-tailed Eagle, Willie Wagtail, Australian Magpie and some 50 others.

His later work A General History of Birds (1821-1828) was another huge undertaking. Throughout, he was a victim of the sheer volume of material cascading into the ports and the need to work often from drawings. Crucially, he had no familiarity with the birds in the wild, so he not infrequently described males and females, or young birds, as separate species, even within the one volume.

Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor, Canberra. Another threatened parrot species, whose genus was named for Latham by a French ornithologist and polymath, René Lesson, in 1830. It is the only species in this genus.
By our standards his perceptions of bird relationships were somewhat random; he lumped many unrelated Australian species as 'creepers', 'warblers and 'manakins'. However it was Latham who first applied the name honey-eater to Australian species, though for him it was a wide net indeed, encompassing bee-eaters, robins, whistlers, bowerbirds and whipbirds - plus some honeyeaters...

We ought not to be too judgemental however; the material available to him, the tools for studying it, and the communications for exchange of ideas, were all more rudimentary than we can imagine. By the time he died in 1837 aged 96 the world had changed - and he had played no small part in that.
Australian Brush-turkey Alectura lathami, (in rain!) Chichester State Forest, New South Wales.
This time the honours were done in 1831 by John Gray, a zoologist at the British Museum in London,
not long before Latham's death.

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2 comments:

Flabmeister said...

I had hoped the ACT suburb of Latham was named after him. Alas, no. The suburb is named for John Latham, Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia from 1935 to 1952.

Martin

Ian Fraser said...

Yes, it's all very disappointing really. Turns out that Fraser isn't named for the NSW Colonial Botanist, nor Campbell for the early 20th century Australian ornithologist. And Conder isn't named for the South American rapter!!