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Biodiversity Heritage Library
Biodiversity Heritage Library

John James Audubon’s Made-Up Bulletproof Fish

Biodiversity Heritage Library
Biodiversity Heritage Library

Even legendary naturalists like to have their fun. John James Audubon is best known today for his bird paintings and descriptions, but in his heyday, Audubon studied pretty much every animal he could find, and piles of field drawings accumulated in his Kentucky home. It was these drawings that would later serve as the vehicle for Audubon’s best-known (and possibly only) practical joke. 

As Allison Meier explains for Hyperallergic, the hijinks began in 1818 when Audubon welcomed fellow naturalist Constantine Samuel Rafinesque into his home. Constantinople-born Rafinesque was an accomplished collector of specimens, a seasoned traveler, and an author. He was also—as historians tell it—pretty annoying. 

Rafinesque had a passion for discovering new species. He dug enthusiastically into Audubon’s stacks of sketches and notes, exclaiming each time he encountered a species he’d never seen before.

The travelling naturalist was staying with Audubon and his family for three weeks. At some point during that (possibly overlong) visit, Audubon decided to have a little fun at his guest’s expense. He slipped a variety of new drawings into the stacks. They looked like all the others, but they illustrated a fish species that did not exist. The phony field notes described an “Ohio red-eye” (Aplocentrus calliops), a “Flatnose Doublefin” (Dinectus truncates), and, most memorably, the “Devil-Jack Diamond fish” (Litholepsis adamantinus), which Audubon claimed was four to ten feet long and covered with bulletproof scales.

Rafinesque fell for the scam species hook, line, and sinker. Not only did he take Audubon at his word, but he would even go on to reproduce the drawings and ludicrous descriptions in his own field journals, citing them as fact. Still, as a man of conscience, Rafinesque did note that he had never seen most of these fish with his own eyes. 

Image courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library, digitized by Smithsonian Institution Archives

It’s not known if Rafinesque ever discovered that he’d been had. But the prank was not without consequences. Nine years later, Audubon published his landmark book The Birds of America, which featured life-size paintings of 435 species. But five of those species could not be confirmed. By this time, word of Audubon’s fictional fish had reached certain scholars, and they wondered if his “mystery birds” were yet more fabrications. Audubon insisted that they weren’t, but his prank had cost him some credibility. Let’s hope Audubon was a little nicer to house guests after that.

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Big Questions
What's the Difference Between Gophers and Groundhogs?
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
Gopher or groundhog? (If you chose gopher, you're correct.)
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Gophers and groundhogs. Groundhogs and gophers. They're both deceptively cuddly woodland rodents that scurry through underground tunnels and chow down on plants. But whether you're a nature nerd, a Golden Gophers football fan, or planning a pre-spring trip to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, you might want to know the difference between groundhogs and gophers.

Despite their similar appearances and burrowing habits, groundhogs and gophers don't have a whole lot in common—they don't even belong to the same family. For example, gophers belong to the family Geomyidae, a group that includes pocket gophers (sometimes referred to as "true" gophers), kangaroo rats, and pocket mice.

Groundhogs, meanwhile, are members of the Sciuridae (meaning shadow-tail) family and belong to the genus Marmota. Marmots are diurnal ground squirrels, Daniel Blumstein, a UCLA biologist and marmot expert, tells Mental Floss. "There are 15 species of marmot, and groundhogs are one of them," he explains.

Science aside, there are plenty of other visible differences between the two animals. Gophers, for example, have hairless tails, protruding yellow or brownish teeth, and fur-lined cheek pockets for storing food—all traits that make them different from groundhogs. The feet of gophers are often pink, while groundhogs have brown or black feet. And while the tiny gopher tends to weigh around two or so pounds, groundhogs can grow to around 13 pounds.

While both types of rodent eat mostly vegetation, gophers prefer roots and tubers (much to the dismay of gardeners trying to plant new specimens), while groundhogs like vegetation and fruits. This means that the former animals rarely emerge from their burrows, while the latter are more commonly seen out and about.

Groundhogs "have burrows underground they use for safety, and they hibernate in their burrows," Blumstein says. "They're active during the day above ground, eating a variety of plants and running back to their burrows to safety. If it's too hot, they'll go back into their burrow. If the weather gets crappy, they'll go back into their burrow during the day as well."

But that doesn't necessarily mean that gophers are the more reclusive of the two, as groundhogs famously hibernate during the winter. Gophers, on the other hand, remain active—and wreck lawns—year-round.

"What's really interesting is if you go to a place where there's gophers, in the spring, what you'll see are what is called eskers," or winding mounds of soil, Blumstein says [PDF]. "Basically, they dig all winter long through the earth, but then they tunnel through snow, and they leave dirt in these snow tunnels."

If all this rodent talk has you now thinking about woodchucks and other woodland creatures, know that groundhogs have plenty of nicknames, including "whistle-pig" and "woodchuck," while the only nicknames for gophers appear to be bitter monikers coined by Wisconsin Badgers fans.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Watch Christmas Island’s Annual Crab Migration on Google Street View
Google
Google

Every year, the 45 million or so red crabs on the remote Australian territory of Christmas Island migrate en masse from their forest burrows down to the ocean to mate, and so the female crabs can release their eggs into the sea to hatch. The migration starts during the fall, and the number of crabs on the beach often peaks in December. This year, you don’t have to be on Christmas Island to witness the spectacular crustacean event, as New Atlas reports. You can see it on Google Street View.

Watching the sheer density of crabs scuttling across roads, boardwalks, and beaches is a rare visual treat. According to the Google blog, this year’s crabtacular finale is forecasted for December 16, and Parks Australia crab expert Alasdair Grigg will be there with the Street View Trekker to capture it. That is likely to be the day when crab populations on the beaches will be at their peak, giving you the best view of the action.

Crabs scuttle across the forest floor while a man with a Google Street View Trekker walks behind them.
Google

Google Street View is already a repository for a number of armchair travel experiences. You can digitally explore remote locations in Antarctica, recreations of ancient cities, and even the International Space Station. You can essentially see the whole world without ever logging off your computer.

Sadly, because Street View isn’t live, you won’t be able to see the migration as it happens. The image collection won’t be available until sometime in early 2018. But it’ll be worth the wait, we promise. For a sneak preview, watch Parks Australia’s video of the 2012 event here.

[h/t New Atlas]

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