April 27, 2016
John James Audubon will have his revenge
by Ryan Harrington
John James Audubon’s exquisitely detailed ornithological study The Birds of America was a monumental work, revealing 25 new species of American birds and defining the style of much of the wildlife illustration that came after it. First serialized as prints between 1827 and 1838, today the full volume exists as a rare and valuable treasure, and only 120 complete sets exist.
But as Sarah Laskow shows in a piece for Atlas Obscura, the man may have been a trailblazing visionary in another art: The Art of the Prank.
In fact, it is now becoming clear that Audubon invented as many as 28 fake species, in order to prank a rival naturalist.
Laskow sets the scene:
The prank began when the French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque sought on Audubon on a journey down the Ohio River in 1818. Audubon was years away from publishing Birds in America, but even then he was known among colleagues for his ornithological drawings. Rafinesque was on the hunt for new species—plants in particular—and he imagined that Audubon might have unwittingly included some unnamed specimens in his sketches.
Rafinesque was an extremely enthusiastic namer of species: during his career as a naturalist, he named 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, approximately. He was self-taught, and the letter of introduction he handed to Audubon described him as “an odd fish.”
And even though Audubon actually liked his French counterpart, he began describing to Rafinesque a series of truly odd fish, so strange that, indeed, they didn’t exist. Scientists, famously smart, got wise to Audubon’s prank by the 1870s.
But a recent, deeper audit of Rafinesque’s work conducted by Neal Woodman, a curator at Smithsonian’s natural history museum, suggests that some of Rafinesque’s drawings—of the “three-striped mole rat,” for instance—also reflect Audubon’s devilish sense of humor, or competitive misdirection.
The purpose of Woodman’s study is not to debunk Rafinesque’s taxonomies, which aren’t really at the heart of our understanding of the world. Instead, he nobly seeks to reveal the size and scope of a world-class academic prank. (Which is apparently an enduring genre of joke).
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.