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Pranked by Audubon: Constantine S. Rafinesque's description of John James Audubon's imaginary Kentucky mammals

April 4, 2016

The North American naturalist Constantine S. Rafinesque spent much of the year 1818 engaged in a solo journey down the Ohio River Valley to explore parts of what was then the western United States. Along the way, he visited a number of fellow naturalists, and he spent more than a week at the Henderson, Kentucky, home of artist and ornithologist John James Audubon. During the succeeding two years, Rafinesque published descriptions of new species that resulted from his expedition, including eleven species of fishes that eventually proved to have been invented by Audubon as a prank on the credulous naturalist. Less well known are a number of “wild rats” described by Rafinesque that include one recognized species (Musculus leucopus) and ten other, imaginary “species” fabricated by Audubon (Gerbillus leonurus, G. megalops, Spalax trivittata, Cricetus fasciatus, Sorex cerulescens, S. melanotis, Musculus nigricans, Lemmus albovittatus, L. talpoides, Sciurus ruber). Rafinesque's unpublished sketches of these animals provide important insight regarding the supposed nature of the animals invented by Audubon and ultimately published by Rafinesque.