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Featuring misplaced deer, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and a dishonest fur trader

Curators’ Casebook is our ongoing series in which we look at some of the curious cases USGS curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History deal with on a regular basis. Check back every month for a new case!

A female mule deer in Texas, quite far from its type location. Credit: Alex Demas, USGS.

Did you know that Chinese fortune cookies are not originally from China? It’s true! Sometimes things we thought were from one place are, in fact, from somewhere completely different. USGS scientist Neal Woodman, one of the mammal collection curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, discovered something similar with deer, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and a fraudulent fur trader’s journal.

Back in the early 1800s, naturalists in the eastern United States were getting inundated with accounts of the fantastic new species of plants and animals in the West. Each new diary from a fur trader or official report from an expedition yielded vivid descriptions of species brand new to Western science. However, not every expedition brought back actual specimens of these species, so some naturalists would describe and name new species based only on the descriptions, taking careful note of where they were seen so future scientists would know the animal or plant’s range. This was an ultimately problematic practice, because it was prone to error.

A male white-tailed deer. By USDA photo by Scott Bauer - Image Number: K5437-3., Public Domain,

That’s what happened with the mule deer and the Kansas white-tailed deer. American naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, working off the diary of French Canadian fur trader Charles Le Raye, described and named two new species of deer, Odocoileus hemionus (a.k.a. the mule deer), and Odocoileus virginianus macrourus (a.k.a. the Kansas white-tailed deer). He also made sure to mention that the type localities—learn what that is in this week’s EarthWord!—were based on Le Raye’s journal too.

However, much to modern science’s consternation, it turns out that the diary of Charle Le Raye, as well as the man himself, were completely made up. Turns out a fraud named Jervis Cutler invented the whole story out of thin air, and had never seen the animals he described nor even visited the places he wrote about. That throws all of the information we know about mule deer and Kansas white-tailed deer into doubt, right?

Now, wait a minute, we know that these deer exist. In fact, mule deer are some of the iconic mammals of the North American West. And they match the descriptions that Rafinesque used to officially name them. So what gives? Well, turns out that Cutler was not only a fraud, he was a plagiarist. He took descriptions of animals and places from many other journals to make his fake one.

A portrait of Patrick Gass. By Unknown - en:Category:Centennial History of Oregon, Public Domain,

One of those sources he plagiarized was that of Patrick Gass, a sergeant on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Although likely frustrating for Gass, that’s actually good news for us, because Gass mentioned the mule deer and Kansas white-tailed deer and where the Expedition saw them. Thus, using the Gass journal for the original source of Rafinesque’s descriptions, the type localities for the two deer can be reliably placed in Lyman County, South Dakota.

Read Woodman’s report here.

Hungry for some science, but you don’t have time for a full-course research plate? Then check out USGS Science Snippets, our snack-sized science series that focuses on the fun, weird, and fascinating stories of USGS science.