About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

On This Day 1 March: Welsh National Day

From time to time over the years I've marked various national days, either by celebrating the natural history of the country, or by highlighting connections with Australian nature. Today it is the latter. The day is actually the feast day of Saint David, patron saint of Wales. Unlike the equivalent days in Scotland and Ireland, it is not a holiday in Wales, though it is marked in various ways. David lived in the 6th century, a religious teacher and founder of monasteries. It's not clear for what he was sanctified, though that's not my department (though unlike St George he doesn't seem to have been rewarded for slaughtering the wildlife!). It appears to have been political in fact, coinciding in 1120 with a time of massive Welsh resistance to the Norman invaders. However that's not my main interest today. Rather I'd like to introduce three Welsh naturalists and biologists, all born in the 1700s, who contributed to the landscape of Australian plant (especially) and animal names, though none of them ever came anywhere near here. Indeed, as far as I can tell, two of them never left Britain, and the third ventured only as far as France. All were interesting chaps (but aren't all naturalists?!).
Narrow-leafed Bitterpea Daviesia mimosoides, Tinderry Nature Reserve, east of Canberra.
The genus was named by pre-eminent English botanist James Smith in 1798 for the Welsh botanist Hugh Davies.
This pea genus, of some 120 species, is endemic to Australia, and is found in every Australian state.
The Reverend Hugh Davies was born in 1739 on the island of Anglesey, at Llandyfrydog (I just like writing that, but am glad I'm not narrating this!). Aside from a stint at Oxford, a couple of botanical collecting trips to the Isle of Man, and some time in London with botanical colleague William Hudson in 1792, he seemingly not only to have never left Wales, but to have spent most of his life on Anglesey. He followed in his father's footsteps as an Anglican clergyman, but was also a very highly regarded (and apparently self-taught) botanist. In this he was apparently influenced by, and worked closely with, Thomas Pennant, whom we shall shortly also meet. He contributed plant specimens and advice to major British botanical works including Hudson's Flora Anglica, James Smith's mighty Flora Britannica and The Botanist's Guide through England and Wales by Dawson Turner and Lewis Weston Dillwyn, among several others. He also edited Pennant's Indian Zoology and contributed to others of Pennant's works. 
Broad-leafed Bitterpea Daviesia latifoloa, Budderoo National Park, southern New South Wales.
He was elected a Fellow of the Linnean Society in 1790 and published in their prestigious journal. Throughout this he seems to have been dogged by depression; in the forward to his crowning work, Welsh Botanology (I do love that word!), in 1813 near the end of his life, he wrote of "a constitutional nervous sensibility, which increases with years to an oppressive degree, having rendered me unequal to the duties of my profession", in explaining his recent resignation from the ministry (though he was by then in his 70s anyway). This 8-volume book, based on his own herbarium, was hailed as the first to associate Welsh names for plants with their scientific names. He died in 1821, aged 81. Here are some more of 'his' genus.
Gorse-leafed Bitterpea Daviesia ulicifolia, Tinderry Nature Reserve.

Daviesia alata, Bundanoon, southern New South Wales.
This one is interesting in having leaves reduced to scales, or absent, a characteristic
more associated with plants of more arid regions.

Our second botanical Welshman today was Lewis Weston Dillwyn, with whom Davies cooperated on The Botanist's Guide through England and Wales.  
Silky Parrot-pea Dillwynia sericea, Bundanoon.
The genus was named in 1805, also by James Smith, for Dillwyn when he (Dillwyn) was just 27.
He too had a full-time profession, but it was very different from Davies'. In 1822, when Lewis was just 24, his father purchased the Cambrian Pottery in Swansea, and put the somewhat reluctant Lewis in charge. His father, William, was a Quaker and anti-slavery activist who had returned to his homeland from Pennsylvania during the American Civil War. There is evidence that William was motivated in the factory purchase by a desire to keep his son active while dealing with his gout - at age 24! Lewis was somewhat reluctant to take up the responsibility, having already embarked on a botanical career; the previous year he had delivered a well-received paper to the Linnean Society on the plants of the Dover area. His Botanist's Guide was published in 1805, the year that Smith commemorated him with the genus name. He was later to publish on subjects as diverse as beetles and shells, and was made a member of the Royal Society.

When he did get to focus on the pottery, his passion dominated there too. Flower painting on china was very fashionable in Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, but with little emphasis on botanical accuracy. Dillwyn aimed to change that though – he collected back copies of the Botanical Magazine, and insisted that his artists copied them accurately, complete with botanical name. (Copyright laws were presumably laxer then.) They also did good butterflies, flowers and shells. He died in 1855, aged 77.
Small-leafed Parrot-pea Dillwynia retorta, Black Mountain Nature Reserve, Canberra.
My last featured Welshman today was somewhat more adventurous than the previous two, though this was greatly assisted by an apparent lack of need to have a profession, having been born into the gentry in 1726. Having said that, he was very generous in donating proceeds from his publications, especially is British Zoology (1776), to charity. This book was hugely influential - see below.
Brown Beech Pennantia cunninghamii, family Pennantiaceae, an eastern Australian rainforest tree.
The genus was named by Johann Reinhold and Georg Forster (father and son) to honour Thomas Pennant, in 1776.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Compared with Davies and Dillwyn, Pennant travelled quite widely, though he didn't get much further than Scotland and France as far as I can tell - he certainly didn't leave Europe. He was interested in everything he came across, animals, plants, landscapes, geology and people, and wrote detailed accounts of his expeditions, illustrated by his servant Moses Griffiths. His earliest published papers were on geology and palaeontology, which impressed Carl Linnaeus enough to have him elected to the Royal Swedish Society of Sciences at the age of 31. Ten years later, with the support of Sir Joseph Banks, he was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society.
It was Banks who presented him with a skin of a King Penguin from the Falklands, which Pennant wrote about, along with all other then-known penguin species, in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. He was ambitious - despite his relatively modest travels, he wrote a History of Quadrupeds, the previously mentioned Indian Zoology, and Arctic Zoology. (The latter was to be a Zoology of North America, but he changed his mind in protest against the loss of British authority there.) He died, aged 72 in 1798, before completing a massive illustrated 14 volume account of every country in the world, with its products and natural history. 

English botanist John Latham named the Crimson Rosella for him, though he'd been gazumped by the German Johann Gmelin; this didn't stop its common name being based on his for a while.
The Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans (here in my Canberra garden) was for some time known as
Pennant’s Parrakeet or Pennantian Parrot.
As suggested above, his British Zoology had a significant impact, not least because it offered fixed English names for some bird groups which had not previously had them; among these are flycatcher, grebe, oriole and pratincole.
Olive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus, Nowra, New South Wales.
While Pennant wasn't thinking this species, it's because of him that we call the bird an oriole!
Overall, quite an impact on the landscape of Australian biological names from three Welshmen who probably never even dreamed of coming here. Thanks for reading, and if you have any Welsh blood, make the most of the day, holiday or not!

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1 comment:

Pretty Sana said...

Australia Day 2020 is for all Australians, no matter where our personal stories began. Reflect on being Australian, celebrate contemporary Australia and recognise our history.