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August 3, 2016

Featuring fake fishes, made-up mammals, and taxonomic tomfoolery

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. 

John James Audubon, famous naturalist. By John Syme - The White House Historical Association, Public Domain,

Pranks and shenanigans are usually associated with the halls of high-school locker rooms, not the hallowed halls of science. But the more you study scientists, the more you find that they are often not above some practical jokes (see: Feynman, Richard, the entire career of). In this case, we’ll take a look at mischief perpetrated by none other than John James Audubon, the famed ornithologist and artist.

Constantine Rafinesque, a prolific naturalist. Public Domain,

The butt of Audubon’s joke is the American naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, who has been featured here before. During one specimen-gathering expedition, Rafinesque traveled “more than 2,500 miles” down the Ohio River Valley, then considered America’s Western frontier. Along the way, he visited a number of fellow naturalists, including John James Audubon.

In the early 1800s, Kentucky was considered part of the western frontier of the United States. By James Pierce Barton (1817 - 1891) – Painter (American)Born in Zanesville, Ohio.Details of artist on Google Art Project - JAGWhX3-FUM-uQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

After spending a week with Audubon, Rafinesque continued his journey, finally ending in Philadelphia in late 1818. Over the next several years, he methodically published the results of his journey, describing and naming hundreds of new species of plants and animals. Of those discoveries, though, 11 fishes and 10 rats would prove to be pranks made up by Audubon.

Rafinesque's “Big-eye jumping mouse”, Gerbillus megalops (Rafinesque’s field notebook, no. 187).

The fake fishes were discovered somewhat quickly, but the made-up mammals took longer, largely because Rafinesque refused to divulge their origin for some time. USGS scientist Neal Woodman, one of the mammal collection curators at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, now sheds some light on these faux fauna based on records in the Smithsonian’s collections.

Rafinesque's “Lion-tail jumping mouse”, Gerbillus leonurus (no. 191).

A few of the fantastic fauna follow a certain formula. Audubon would take an Old World species that both he and Rafinesque knew did not occur in the New World, and then describe it as if he had seen it in the Kentucky wilds. Both the “Big-eye jumping mouse” and the “Lion-tail jumping mouse” are probably modelled on Old World gerbils. At least those two are somewhat similar to New World species. The “Three-striped mole rat,” though, isn’t. It’s probably based on greater blind mole rats from the eastern Mediterranean, and bears no resemblance to any North American species.

Rafinesque's “Blackish rat Musculus niger”, Musculus nigricans (no. 224).

Most amusing, though, is the “Blackish rat” that Rafinesque described. The sketch and description match a species that both he and Audubon were probably familiar with, as are most people—the house mouse. As Woodman noted, “what better way to test Rafinesque’s trusting gullibility when it came to his compulsive need to name new species than to describe to him a common house pest (and an Old World species) as though it were something distinctive?”

Rafinesque's “Brindled stamiter”, Cricetus fasciatus (no. 193).

So why did John James Audubon prank Constantine Rafinesque? Many theories abound, and he probably thought Rafinesque would realize the prank before publishing. However, karma did eventually find Audubon, who fell for a similar prank when John Graham Bell, another famous naturalist, made up a bird “with the head of a snipe, the body of something else, the wings and legs of another.” Audubon completely ate it up and sent off an account to Europe. After the prank was made known, Audubon was initially angered, but eventually came around and found it amusing. Perhaps he remembered pulling similar pranks earlier in his career.

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.