Nearly fifteen years ago, I began my first degree… in Agriculture. This always astonishes students, who expect their English teacher wouldn’t be able to give advice on Biology homework nor be able to rattle off the taxonomic ranks of ‘Kingdom-Phylum-Division-Class-Order-Family-Genus-Species’ on command.
I changed my major for several reasons but did continue my interest in science via my Philosophy degree, Education and Psychology studies. Thus I learned about Darwin’s contribution to taxonomy… and Leibniz’s unicorn.
It seems that imagination and passion were a common element in the desire to accurately ascertain and classify the species of the world… and also could lead to being directed towards the credulous paths of hoaxed creations and cryptozoology, as well as artistic interpretation of what a new species could be.
Creativity in biological nomenclature was something I learned about in the mid-90s, when I heard of a news report on a beetle named after Darth Vader. A genuine article, a newly-discovered beetle; indeed the product of research and study… so-called for his shiny head with a slit across the front, like the Sith Lord’s helmet – Agathidium vaderi.
It doesn’t stop there though. What about a spider called Draculoides bramstokeri? Or the sand-crab Albunea groeningi, named after Matt ‘The Simpsons’ Groening? A big winner in terms of nomenclature nods would have to be Frank Zappa, who has at least five different species named after him… one because the orb-weaver spider, Pachygnatha zappa, features abdominal marking that resembles his mustache. Oh, and Playboy founder Hugh Hefner has… yeah, you guessed it, an endangered rabbit named after him.
Maybe like Rimmer of Red Dwarf, you promote the classics of ‘Mozart, Mendelssohn and Motorhead‘ – at least three species named after Mozart, like the Mozartella beethoveni (an encyrtid wasp) – and indeed, even Motorhead’s Lenny Kilmister, with a 428-million year old fossil polychaete named after him in 2006 : Kalloprion kilmisteri.
I often get skinks brought into the house by my helpful cats, although I’ve never inquired as to whether it’s a ‘Eroticoscincus‘ or the ‘sexy skink‘ that they’re trying to show me… and since JRR Tolkien’s birthday is coming up on the 3rd of January, you might like to check out Leucothoe tolkieni, an amphipod named after him, amongst dozens of species based on his characters.
My personal favourite? Baru darrowi, a large fossilised Australian crocodile – named after Paul Darrow who played Avon in Blake’s Seven – pretty apt considering his idea of diplomacy would well match that of a crocodile…
It’s enough to give you genus-envy, isn’t it?
Such achievements, finding new species, naming them and being a part of the wonder of nature. It makes you then question – what about the fakes? Why do we allow ourselves to be fooled by perposterous claims of new species that push the boundaries of reality – Leibniz’s unicorn, Phineas Taylor Barnum’s much-toted Feejee Mermaid and the Jackalope (which I even saw for myself tucked away on the side stage during a David Bowie tour, as their special traveling mascot)?
I suppose it’s to do with the promise of acclaim and wonder that comes with finding something new; as well as the profit and even sometimes amusement that is created – claims made in all honest hope, or deliberate hoax or even artistic interpretation that marries science, art and the fantastic. Of course, all of these can also teach us valuable lessons in regards to the scientific method.
Such a lesson was produced by William Willers, who created the Centaur of Volos in the 1980s, from the bones of a human and a Shetland pony. This centaur creation is intended to be a teaching tool; biology professor Dr Neil Greenberg and art professor Beauvais Lyons promote skepticism through displaying it at the University of Tennessee:
The hoax is intended to draw attention to the mythological and poetic dimensions of science and history, and to remind students not to believe everything they see or read. “The Centaur Excavations at Volos” is staged like an authentic exhibition, depicting a “centaur” burial and a group of related ceramics.
Since I’m an Australian, I often hear about Australian cryptozoological claims (especially from a few friends who live in the rural areas of the state) such as the Yowie and surviving thylacines, which even led Steve Irwin to try to track some evidence of their survival. These are a great many world-wide examples of efforts to seek species that have never had any convincing proof for them or are feared extinct.
More recently, however, I was able to attend the Perth showing of the traveling exhibition for The Art of Dr Seuss, which revealed to me how the notion of ‘undiscovered species’ provokes artistic muses as well as credulous claims.
Surreal artwork like ‘Every Girl Needs a Unicorn‘ and ‘Pink Tufted Small Beast in a Night Landscape‘ … and er, the ‘Martini Bird‘ clearly nod to the fantastic imaginings that come from the ‘what if’ about species. The basis of these quirky species ‘hoaxes’ in the name of art come from Theodore ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel’s use of animal bones and horns in his ‘Unorthodox Taxidermy‘ series. An important element were the donated beaks, antlers and horns of deceased animals by his father, who was a superintendent of the Forest Park Zoo.
Hence items like the ‘Kangaroo Bird’ and the ‘semi-normal Green-Lidded Fawn’, made of old bones, antlers and cast resin. They nearly seem to have walked out of one of the children’s books he created… probably chewing the pages as they go.
Interestingly enough, a website also exists that questions the veracity of these Seuss-specials in themselves, with a lengthy history of checking out whether artistic pieces are ‘authentic created-during-the-artist’s lifetime’ items! Debate over what makes them ‘real’ revolves around how each sculpture features an ‘Authorized Engraved Signature’, identifying the work as an ‘exclusively authorized limited edition commissioned by the Seuss Estate’. Is art of fake species still art, whether created by the original artist or not? Is a ‘fake’ fake fake? Is that right?
In a similar vein, recently I was told of the New York artist Juan Cabana who actively creates hoax Feejee mermaids, based on Barnam’s brainchild, and sells them – with unknown persons taking photo of his art on shorelines, resulting in a newspaper reporting erroneously how his art ‘washed up’ as evidence of a new species! An inspired fake with a faked-finding creating hoaxed headlines? Getting dizzy yet?
The scientific value of finding a new species is unquestioned – the ‘specialness’ involved, however, can lead to non-scientific goals. Yet I also think that the artistic and the historical value we gain from the study of pseudo-species and the continuing search for the missing link / hidden creature / brand new mutation that may take us where no label has gone before…
… are nothing when compared to the value of saving daffodils from being eaten by fake animals.
Bartholomew, R., and Radford, B. (2003). Hoaxes, Myths and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking. Prometheus Books, New York.
Roesch, B.S., and Moore, J.L. (2002). Cryptozoology. In Skeptic’s Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience, ed. Michael Shermer. ABC-Clio, New York.