The Age of Reptiles

The Age of Reptiles
The Age of Reptiles, a mural by Rudolph F. Zallinger. Copyright 1966, 1975, 1985, 1989 Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

James Dana and the U.S. Exploring Expedition

Some of the oldest specimens in the Invertebrate Zoology collections come from the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. The Expedition was undertaken by the U.S. Navy and was accompanied by nine scientists and artists. They were charged with exploring, studying and surveying the Pacific Ocean. The Expedition circumnavigated the world, and crisscrossed the Pacific Ocean over the 4 years. Included among the scientists, was Yale geologist James D. Dana.

Originally the Expedition’s geologist, Dana took on the role of zoologist after Joseph Couthouy left the Expedition after clashing with its commander, Lt. Charles Wilkes. While rightfully renowned for his contributions to geology, Dana left his mark on the Invertebrate zoology community with his landmark monographs on the Zoophytes (Corals and Anemones) and Crustacea of the Exploring Expedition. The specimens of plants, birds, mammals, invertebrates, etc. and anthropological objects collected during the Expedition were the basis for the founding of the collections of Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History. Over the years, duplicates were sent to other museums such as the Peabody and Harvard’s Museum of Comparative Zoology. Many of Dana’s type specimens found their way to the Peabody from Dana himself and via exchanges during the Verrill years. Sadly, many of his Crustacea types were lost during the Great Chicago Fire, as they were being studied at the time by William Stimpson at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

While sorting through a folder, labeled by Verrill as “Miscellaneous notes and drawings, Foreign and American,” I came across several important original illustrations made by Dana, very likely drawn aboard the vessel during the Expedition. Investigating further, two of the illustrations represent the original account of specimens that were described from life and apparently not retained. Therefore, the illustration above (YPM IZ 56758) of a species of Siphonophora described by Dana would be considered the holotype. This figure was reproduced in his publication on the description of Crystallomia polygonata. A second illustration (YPM IZ 56759) of a Polychaeta specimen was sent to W.C. Minor who described the new species Tomopteris danae from the figure and Dana’s description. These two illustrations are essentially the specimens. As they have been buried in the divisional archives for at least the last 100 years, they have been lost to subsequent revisers of these species. From a historical perspective, it would not be an understatement to suggest that these illustrations represent some of the most important holdings for the Division of Invertebrate Zoology and would have great value to any historian studying James Dana or the Exploring Expedition.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Lost Expedition

While cataloging some of Sidney Smith’s (left) correspondence, I came across an envelope marked “Woodruff Expedition.” Knowing Smith never went on said expedition, and having never heard of it, I was eager to see what the letters had to say. Inside were numerous letters to Smith discussing the proposed expedition and it soon became apparent why I had never heard of the “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World.” Many of the letters were from William G. Farlow, a botanist from Harvard. The letters expressed concern about the state of the expedition and lack of faith in the organizers of the expedition.

The “Woodruff Scientific Expedition around the World” was the idea of James O. Woodruff. He proposed a “floating school” which would take 200 students and cadets on a 2 year voyage. He had invited numerous scientists and naval officers to be faculty on board to teach things such as navigation, seamanship, zoology, botany, etc. His first attempt was to set sail in the fall of 1877. From the letters however, it became clear the organizers were having trouble securing enough students to make the trip a possibility. Originally, Woodruff was asking $5000 per student, a rather large sum of money for the time. By July of 1877, Smith and Farlow were increasingly skeptical at the chances for a successful departure and decided to remove themselves from association with the expedition. In fact, the tone of several of Farlow’s letters show he was quite agitated with the situation, suggesting Woodruff’s agents were not acting in good faith.

The expedition never did sail in 1877, supposedly due to a lack of an appropriate vessel, as explained in an article in the New York Times in October of 1877. A second attempt, scheduled to sail in May 1879, also failed. This time the cause was a lack of interested students. In June of 1879, James Woodruff’s dream of an around the world expedition ended with his untimely death at the age of 39. It’s rather sad the expedition never did sail as it would have been a great opportunity for not only the students, but the scientists on board. In the course of his career at Yale, Sidney Smith, a carcinologist, left his mark of the Peabody Museum’s crustacean collections, describing numerous taxa and publishing dozens of papers. He no doubt would have added great value to the expedition and to the Museum’s collections.