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Biodiversity Heritage Library

John James Audubon’s Made-Up Bulletproof Fish

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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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Animals
25 Shelter Dogs Who Made It Big
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Focus Features

If you’ve been thinking of adding a four-legged friend to your brood and are deciding whether a shelter dog is right for you, consider this: Some of history’s most amazing pooches—from four-legged movie stars to heroic rescue dogs—were found in animal shelters. In honor of Adopt-a-Shelter-Dog Month, here are 25 shelter dogs who made it big.

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This High-Tech Material Can Change Shape Like an Octopus
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iStock

Octopuses can do some pretty amazing things with their skin, like “see” light, resist the pull of their own sticky suction cups, and blend in seamlessly with their surroundings. That last part now has the U.S. Army interested, as Co.Design reports. The military branch’s research office has funded the development a new type of morphing material that works like an octopus’s dynamic skin.

The skin of an octopus is covered in small, muscular bumps called papillae that allow them to change textures in a fraction of a second. Using this mechanism, octopuses can mimic coral, rocks, and even other animals. The new government-funded research—conducted by scientists at Cornell University—produced a device that works using a similar principle.

“Technologies that use stretchable materials are increasingly important, yet we are unable to control how they stretch with much more sophistication than inflating balloons,” the scientists write in their study, recently published in the journal Science. “Nature, however, demonstrates remarkable control of stretchable surfaces.”

The membrane of the stretchy, silicone material lays flat most of the time, but when it’s inflated with air, it can morph to form almost any 3D shape. So far, the technology has been used to imitate rocks and plants.

You can see the synthetic skin transform from a two-dimensional pad to 3D models of objects in the video below:

It’s easy to see how this feature could be used in military gear. A soldier’s suit made from material like this could theoretically provide custom camouflage for any environment in an instant. Like a lot of military technology, it could also be useful in civilian life down the road. Co.Design writer Jesus Diaz brings up examples like buttons that appear on a car's dashboard only when you need them, or a mixing bowl that rises from the surface of the kitchen counter while you're cooking.

Even if we can mimic the camouflage capabilities of cephalopods, though, other impressive superpowers, like controlling thousands of powerful suction cups or squeezing through spaces the size of a cherry tomato, are still the sole domain of the octopus. For now.

[h/t Co.Design]

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