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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Animals
How Bats Protect Rare Books at This Portuguese Library
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Visit the Joanina Library at the University of Coimbra in Portugal at night and you might think the building has a bat problem. It's true that common pipistrelle bats live there, occupying the space behind the bookshelves by day and swooping beneath the arched ceilings and in and out of windows once the sun goes down, but they're not a problem. As Smithsonian reports, the bats play a vital role in preserving the institution's manuscripts, so librarians are in no hurry to get rid of them.

The bats that live in the library don't damage the books and, because they're nocturnal, they usually don't bother the human guests. The much bigger danger to the collection is the insect population. Many bug species are known to gnaw on paper, which could be disastrous for the library's rare items that date from before the 19th century. The bats act as a natural form of pest control: At night, they feast on the insects that would otherwise feast on library books.

The Joanina Library is famous for being one of the most architecturally stunning libraries on earth. It was constructed before 1725, but when exactly the bats arrived is unknown. Librarians can say for sure they've been flapping around the halls since at least the 1800s.

Though bats have no reason to go after the materials, there is one threat they pose to the interior: falling feces. Librarians protect against this by covering their 18th-century tables with fabric made from animal skin at night and cleaning the floors of guano every morning.

[h/t Smithsonian]

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Honey Bees Can Understand the Concept of Zero
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The concept of zero—less than one, nothing, nada—is deceptively complex. The first placeholder zero dates back to around 300 BCE, and the notion didn’t make its way to Western Europe until the 12th century. It takes children until preschool to wrap their brains around the concept. But scientists in Australia recently discovered a new animal capable of understanding zero: the honey bee. According to Vox, a new study finds that the insects can be taught the concept of nothing.

A few other animals can understand zero, according to current research. Dolphins, parrots, and monkeys can all understand the difference between something and nothing, but honey bees are the first insects proven to be able to do it.

The new study, published in the journal Science, finds that honey bees can rank quantities based on “greater than” and “less than,” and can understand that nothing is less than one.

Left: A photo of a bee choosing between images with black dots on them. Right: an illustration of a bee choosing the image with fewer dots
© Scarlett Howard & Aurore Avarguès-Weber

The researchers trained bees to identify images in the lab that showed the fewest number of elements (in this case, dots). If they chose the image with the fewest circles from a set, they received sweetened water, whereas if they chose another image, they received bitter quinine.

Once the insects got that concept down, the researchers introduced another challenge: The bees had to choose between a blank image and one with dots on it. More than 60 percent of the time, the insects were successfully able to extrapolate that if they needed to choose the fewest dots between an image with a few dots and an image with no dots at all, no dots was the correct answer. They could grasp the concept that nothing can still be a numerical quantity.

It’s not entirely surprising that bees are capable of such feats of intelligence. We already know that they can count, teach each other skills, communicate via the “waggle dance,” and think abstractly. This is just more evidence that bees are strikingly intelligent creatures, despite the fact that their insect brains look nothing like our own.

Considering how far apart bees and primates are on the evolutionary tree, and how different their brains are from ours—they have fewer than 1 million neurons, while we have about 86 billion—this finding raises a lot of new questions about the neural basis of understanding numbers, and will no doubt lead to further research on how the brain processes concepts like zero.

[h/t Vox]

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