Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Of Birds and Poetry: Alexander Wilson and The Foresters

Wilson, Alexander. The Foresters. 1838.
210 years ago, in an autumn not unlike our own today, Alexander Wilson set out with two companions on a 1,300 mile trek, mostly on foot, from Philadelphia to Niagara Falls. Enchanted by the natural beauty of his adopted homeland, Wilson, Scottish by birth, detailed his two-month-long adventure in an epic 2,219 line poem entitled The Foresters: A Poem Descriptive of a Pedestrian Journey to the Falls of Niagara in the Autumn of 1804.

Portrait of Alexander Wilson. American Ornithology

Wilson was born in Paisley, Scotland in 1766, but he emigrated to the United States in 1794 with his nephew, William Duncan. Although today known as one of the greatest ornithologists America has ever seen, Wilson's interest in poetry was deeply rooted in his youth. During his time in Scotland, he wrote a great deal of poetry, much of which was satirical. In fact, it was after his arrest and imprisonment for writing a severely satirical poem against a local mill owner that Wilson decided to move to America.

Poetry and ornithology were not the only hats Wilson wore throughout his life. He was somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. He earned his living as a weaver in Scotland, and upon moving to America he worked as a schoolteacher, peddler, engraver, surveyor, and editor. Nature, birds, and poetry, however, were his true passion.

In 1798, four years after they had moved to America, Wilson and his nephew William Duncan, purchased a farm in Ovid between Seneca and Cayuga Lakes, New York, securing 150 acres of uncleared land for $750. Wide-spread outbreaks of yellow fever in Philadelphia, where they had been living, and family ties in upstate New York, prompted their relocation to this rich, largely untapped land in the Finger Lakes region. After the purchase, Duncan began clearing the land for farming while Wilson resumed his teaching activities in a school in Milestown near Philadelphia and accepted odd jobs such as surveying to raise money for the farm.

A farmhouse in Genesee Country, perhaps like what Wilson and Duncan would have had. Sutcliff, Robert. Travels In Some Parts of North America, In the Years 1804, 1805 and 1806. York [England]: Printed by C. Peacock ... for W. Alexander, and sold by him, 1811.

In late October, 1804, Wilson, Duncan, and one of Wilson's students, Isaac Leech, embarked on their great adventure through the Western Frontier, leaving from Philadelphia and heading west through Pennsylvania towards Niagara Falls.

The journey was an ambitious, enlightening, and multi-faceted one. Within his Foresters poem, Wilson provides descriptions of the homes, taverns, and inns they stayed in, reflects upon the virtues of teaching (a profession he clearly believes is under-valued), and describes in vivid narrative the natural beauty and wildlife they encounter. His writings also reveal the progression of human settlement and land development along the Susquehanna, with Wilson remarking on how changed the wilderness was since last he visited it.

Niagara Falls. Dow, Charles M. Anthology and Bibliography of Niagara Falls. Albany [N.Y.]: State of New York, 1921. Vol 1.

Finally, in late November, the travelers reach the climax of their expedition: Niagara Falls. The Falls, a nearly inaccessible wonder of the New World in the early 1800s, is a thing of matchless beauty in Wilson's mind.

"Fixed to the rock, like monuments we stood,
On its flat face, above th' outrageous flood,
There, while our eyes th' amazing whole explored,
The Deep loud roar our loudest voice devoured.

High o'er the wat'ry uproar, silent seen,
Sailing sedate, in majesty serene,
Now 'midst the pillard spray sublimely lost,
And now, emerging, down the rapids tost,
Swept the gray eagles, grazing calm and slow,
On all the horrors of the gulf below;" (pg. 75-76)

With their purpose accomplished, Wilson, Duncan, and Leech set their sights homeward. On December 7, 1804, Wilson returned once again to Philadelphia, penniless but enthused by his adventure. Wilson published his poem in serial form in 10 issues of "The Port Folio," a leading literary magazine in Philadelphia, from 1809-10. The poem was first published in book format in 1818 and again in 1838, with little difference between the editions. The 1838 edition of The Foresters is available in BHL from Cornell University Library. 

The adventure represented not only an important literary venture for Wilson, but solidified in him the desire to pursue his dream to classify, describe, and illustrate all bird species in the United States. Wilson, in fact, viewed this trip as an opportunity to collect and observe American birds. Early on in the poem, Wilson indicates that he came prepared to sketch, bringing along "colors, paper, and pencils." What's more, he frequently describes hunting various birds, including ducks, egrets, herons, eagles and geese, which he would later use as reference for his great masterpiece, American Ornithology.

Wood Thrush, Robin and Nuthatches. Wilson, Alexander. American Ornithology

At the age of 40, just seven years before he died of dysentery and exhaustion, Wilson left teaching and spent the rest of his life traveling over 10,000 miles observing and collecting birds, which he chronicled and illustrated in American Ornithology. The publication included over 260 species, 48 of which were new to science, and was published in at least 10 editions over 70 years.

Ivory-Billed, Red-Headed, and Pileated Woodpeckers. Wilson, Alexander. American Ornithology

Alexander Wilson was a remarkable man who laid the foundations for American ornithology. Though his formal education ended at the age of thirteen, his natural intelligence, creativity, and curiosity propelled him to explore his natural world and fueled a thirst for knowledge that rivaled the greatest intellectuals of the day. His wonderful poetic descriptions within The Foresters offer a unique opportunity to experience Wilson at a personal level and appreciate the awestruck wonder he felt within the wilds of America.

Far spreading forests from its shores ascend;
And tow'ring headlands o'er the flood impend;
These, deep below, in softened tints are seen,
Where Nature smiles upon herself serene,
O lovely scenes! In ecstasy I cried,
That sink to nothing all the work of pride! (pg. 52)

Learn more about Alexander Wilson, his Niagara adventure, and ornithological contributions in Cornell University Library's Majesty Sublime exhibition.

Ducks. Wilson, Alexander. American Ornithology

This post by Grace Costantino based on a presentation by Marty Schlabach (Food and Agriculture Librarian, Mann Library, Cornell University) entitled "Of Birds and Poetry: Alexander Wilson's 1804 Expedition to Niagara Falls," presented to the Buffalo Ornithological Society on November 9, 2005. Additional information obtained from the Majesty Sublime exhibition by Ashley Miller (Mann Library, Cornell University).

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Latest News from BHL

Sharks, Passenger Pigeons, Scientific Illustrations, Crowdsourcing, National Agricultural Library, GBIF, and Semantic Metadata. What do all these things have in common? They're all BHL news stories from the past few months!

Get the latest BHL project news in our latest quarterly report and newsletter! Don't get our newsletter? Sign up today!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Lepidochromy: Butterfly Transfer Prints

This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Libraries' blog. It was written by Daria Wingreen-Mason, Special Collections Technical Information Specialist in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History.

Dorsal and ventral views of specimen from Waller’s Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa.

Horace Waller was an English missionary and anti-slavery activist in the 19th century. In 1859 Waller joined the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa (UMCA). As Lay Superintendent to the UMCA, Waller befriended the famous missionary Dr. David Livingstone and botanist John Kirk who were in Africa as part of the British government-funded Zambezi Expedition. Livingstone, as head of that expedition, and Kirk, as naturalist, together navigated the Zambezi River area between 1858 and 1863. The purpose of the expedition was to chart the geography and catalogue the natural resources of the area. On 19 March 1863 Kirk wrote in his diary “Mr Waller is making a fine collection of insects, chiefly of the Lepidoptera”. Waller assembled this field book of the Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa from his time there.

Waller was an amateur naturalist, but a clearly practiced one, who shared his collection with experienced naturalists such as Roland Trimen who later thanked Waller for showing him specimens from the Shire valley.

Detail from Journal of science and annals of astronomy (v. 1, 1864, p. 651) “On the Butterflies of Madagascar”, by Roland Trimen.

The butterfly specimens in Waller’s field book were prepared by an infrequently employed technique termed lepidochromy in the 19th century. Lepidochromy involved using humidified, relaxed wings and an adhesive such as gum Arabic. By pressing the wings between two prepared papers the dorsal and ventral sides could be separated from each other and the scales, or “feathers”, would remain. Once mounted, the bodies of the insects were drawn in. This type of transfer illustration is classified as a nature print.

Detail from Scientific American: Supplement v. 27: no. 697. (May 11, 1889, p. 11138).

Ninety years before Waller ventured into Africa, George Edwards published a group of essays in 1770 that included “A Receipt For taking the Figures of Butterflies on Thin Gummed Paper.” This, or a slight derivation of it, was the method most likely employed by Waller to mount his “Flys”. By 1889, refinements in the process of lepidochromy were outlined completely in Scientific American, Supplement. It was a simple but onerous process where in the wings were transferred twice so that the brighter outer layer of scales would be right side up when mounted.

Printed volumes with nature prints were also published, but they were few. Printed editions were very labor-intensive and required hundreds and sometimes thousands of specimens. An immodest example is Sherman F. Denton’s two volume set of Moths and butterflies of the United States east of the Rocky Mountains (Boston, 1900) where more than 50,000 butterflies and moths were immortalized. 

North America's largest native moth (Hyalophora cecropia). As nature shows them : moths and butterflies of the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. v. 1. 1900.

The scholarship on this humble field book continues. Dr. David Clough of the Namizimu Institute Mangochi Malawi recently inquired about the volume for exhibition after seeing the blog post, “The Art in Field Books” by Lesley Parilla. Dr. Clough then shared Waller’s butterflies with his colleague Dr. Lawrence Dritsas, a historian of science at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. When the field book was acquired into the collection of Judge Russell E. Train in the late 20th century the authorship had been misattributed to Sir John Kirk. Dr. Dritsas has since properly identified the work’s creator as Horace Waller. Waller’s monogram is evident on the cover just below the title. From a book historian’s point of view, now the only remaining question is at what point was the field book’s authorship confused.

Title page/cover to Waller’s Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa.

Lepidopterists both at the Smithsonian and in Africa have also been consulted about the specimens and a complete and accurate list of the butterfly types have been identified by Dr. Clough and Smithsonian lepidopterists Dr. Robert Robbins and Mr. Brian Harris.

This book was digitized by The Field Book Project for the Biodiversity Heritage Library. It has been transcribed within the Smithsonian's Transcription Center.

Dorsal and ventral views of specimen from Waller’s Butterflies collected in the Shire Valley East Africa.

With thanks to Dr. Lawrence Dritsas from the University of Edinburgh, David Clough from the Namizimu Institute, Steve Collins from the African Research Institute, and Dr. Robert Robbins, Brian Harris, and Lesley Parilla from the Smithsonian Institution. 

The Russell E. Train Africana Collection is housed in the Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History located the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Digital Object Identifiers and BHL

The importance and need for unique, persistent identifiers for reliable access to published literature has become widely accepted, and the literature for the biodiversity informatics community is no exception.  For published works, these generally take the form of Digital Object Identifiers (DOIs). BHL has been consistently assigning CrossRef DOIs to monographic publications for three years. However, the number of items in BHL with DOIs remains relatively small with just over 68,000 assigned to date.  In addition to the remaining monographs, BHL now also has over 140,000 articles identified, primarily via BioStor. The current CrossRef pricing model does not scale for the full and growing BHL corpus.  Which is why…

We need your input! 

BHL is conducting a survey to learn more about what you would like out of DOIs in BHL and to gather recommendations for cost-effective solutions for meeting those needs.

This survey was initiated at the 2014 TDWG Conference in Jönköping, Sweden, October 26 – November 1, 2014 where the survey was distributed as part of a poster session on DOIs in BHL.

DOIs in BHL. Poster from 2014 TDWG Conference.

Missed the poster, or weren’t able to attend TDWG this year?  No problem!  The survey is also available online:  Your input will help guide our strategy for assigning DOIs to the literature in BHL. We hope you’ll take a few minutes to provide your thoughts and recommendations.

Thank you in advance for your time!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Rejuvenating Centuries' Old Botany with Phytogeography

Here's a word of the day for you: Phytogeography.

Phytogeography is a branch of biogeography that investigates the geographic distribution of plants and the effect that the earth's surface has on that distribution. To go further down the rabbit hole, biogeography studies the distribution of species and organisms now and throughout time. This research reveals important interdependencies between geology, climate, dispersal and evolution.

Wallace's map, showing the zoogeographical regions of the world. The Geographical Distribution of Animals. v.1 (1876).

Alfred Russel Wallace is commonly known as the "Father of Biogeography." Although not as famously recognized as Charles Darwin, Wallace actually came up with the theory of evolution by means of natural selection independent of and simultaneous to Darwin. Wallace spent a great part of his career in South America and the Malay Archipelago. During this time, his observations on distribution, breeding, and migration tendencies helped him develop a theory of evolution incorporating the influence of geological barriers on speciation. He also argued that species abundance was directly related to food availability.

Today, biogeographers are largely interested in how environmental factors and human activities influence species distribution. Biogeographic change and insight offered by historical data are a long-time passion of Dr. Quentin Groom, research assistant at the Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium. His particular interest is phytogeography, especially as it relates to the interaction between humans and plants.

Dr. Quentin Groom, research assistant at the Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium.

Groom's interest in phytogeography began ten years ago, but more recently, his discovery of BHL expanded his research possibilities. "[BHL] is a fantastic resource, making research possible that would never have been considered in the past. I use it to find information on particular species and also to find source documents for further analysis. The ability to search by taxon name is invaluable, but having stable URLs for each page is [also] a great feature."

The ability to access this digitized literature is only part of the greater picture of facilitating efficient science and discovery. Intuitive search capabilities and the opportunity to augment existing files are other features Groom would like to see within BHL and the larger bioinformatics community.

"I feel [BHL] is just one step in the full digitization and semantic annotation of biodiversity literature. I'd like to be able to add annotations [to BHL]. [The ability to] search by location name and taxon name would be useful, even if the location names were only countries. It might [also] be useful to have the ability to add internal links within BHL to connect citations within one document to their source in BHL," mused Dr. Groom.

The Mining Biodiversity project, funded by an IMLS Digging Into Data grant, is currently working to address some of these requests. The project aims to create a next-generation digital library by enriching BHL with semantic metadata through deployment of advanced text-mining techniques. This data will be used to support a semantic search system enhanced with clustering and visualization tools. The idea is that a user will be able to search not only for species, but also filter the results for references to habitat, diet, predation, and related facets. The result will be fully interlinked and indexed access to the full content of BHL library documents, allowing users to locate precisely the information of interest to them in an easy and efficient manner.

Furthermore, the project is exploring ways to make BHL more "social", allowing for collaborative curation where users can easily share and discuss our collections. This will not only facilitate expanded reuse and discovery of our material, but will also allow us to evaluate how our content is being used around the globe and by whom, and better measure its impact on biodiversity awareness.

The Mining Biodiversity project runs through December, 2015. As we continue to improve our collections and services, you can explore our collection of over 44.8 million pages of biodiversity literature spanning over 500 years of research and discovery.

Red Deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) from one of Dr. Groom's favorite BHL books, Flora Londinensis, v. 1 (1777).

Amongst all that content, what would a phytogeographer choose as his favorite items in the collection? "Linnaeus' Species Plantarum is an inspiring work. Flora Londinensis by William Curtis makes common weeds special with its illustrations. I also have a soft spot for literature from Northumberland where I used to live," mused Quentin.

Indeed, Dr. Groom recently republished the Flora of Northumberland and Durham (Winch 1831) as an online, semantically enhanced Pensoft "Advanced Book" using the scan originally taken from BHL. The Flora provides valuable insight into how biodiversity in North-east England has changed over time.

"Historic biodiversity literature is not just of cultural interest, it can be used to chart biogeographic change and help us understand the impacts of environmental change on biodiversity," explains Quentin in an EU BON review of his republication. "Even if we are trying to predict future scenarios for biodiversity, understanding the changes of the past will help understand the changes we should expect in the future."

Dr. Groom recently submitted another paper using data gathered from BHL, entitled "Piecing together the biogeographic history of Chenopodium vulvaria L. using botanical literature and collections". The paper charts the distribution of Chenopodium vulvaria over more than 200 years and uses old literature to understand how its habitat may have changed. All of the observations extracted from the literature were georeferenced and are available on GBIF. You can view a preprint of the paper in PeerJ.

The digitization of historic literature, and its enhancement using semantic and linked data, is revolutionizing scientific research, connecting scientists to relevant information more efficiently than ever before. Through continued dedication to open access, BHL and like-minded projects will continue to inspire discovery through free access to biodiversity knowledge.

We extend a special thanks to Quentin for not only describing how BHL is currently impacting his work, but also for revealing important ways that we can improve our library. Do you have ideas about how you would like to see BHL improve? Would you like to tell us about how BHL has impacted your own research? Then send us some feedback!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Crowdsourcing and BHL: Current Projects that Allow Users to Help Us Improve Our Library!

Recent crowdsourcing initiatives are revolutionizing scientific research, allowing the public to help scientists and researchers document, identify, and better understand biodiversity.

For example, the Atlas of Living Australia’s FieldData program allows anyone to contribute sightings, photos and observational data to help researchers and natural resource management groups collect and manage biodiversity data. Birds Australia is using this data to help record sightings of Carnaby’s Black-Cockatoo to inform conservation initiatives for this endangered species.

As another example, in 2013 a new mammal species, the olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina), was discovered in South America, the first carnivore species to be discovered in the Americas in 35 years. Scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History are using citizen science-contributed observational data and photos to learn more about the new species.

BHL has taken advantage of crowdsourcing’s potential, implementing several initiatives to improve access to BHL images, support OCR correction and transcription, and generate semantic metadata for the BHL portal.

Art of Life: Improving Access to Images 

The Art of Life project, funded by NEH and based at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has been making active progress on its objective of improving access to the natural history illustrations within BHL. The image-finding algorithms developed by the Indianapolis Museum of Art Lab have been run across 18 million BHL pages and you’ll now notice a significant increase in the number of pages tagged as having illustrations within the BHL portal. Pages with illustrations are currently being manually classified by volunteers as belonging to one or more image types: drawing, table, photograph, map, and/or bookplate. A few examples in the BHL portal include:

Example of how metadata now displays descriptive information about the types of images found within BHL pages.

Next steps for the project are to crowdsource descriptions for the image’s content (e.g. subjects, dates, illustrator) through platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons. To follow the project, which runs through April of 2015, see If you are interested in helping classify BHL illustrations contact Principal Investigator Trish Rose-Sandler:

On a related note, we will also be crowdsourcing BHL image descriptions through another platform, Zooniverse, the premier host for citizen science projects. This opportunity came about through a partnership with Constructing Scientific Communities (aka ConSciCom). More details will be forthcoming in a future blog post but expect to see BHL content available in Zooniverse in late spring or early summer of 2015.

Purposeful Gaming and BHL: Playing at OCR Correction and Transcriptions 

Another crowdsourcing BHL project called Purposeful Gaming and BHL, funded by IMLS and based at the Missouri Botanical Garden, has been making significant strides in its objective to improve access to BHL texts through gamifying the text correction process. Digital outputs of BHL text are create both through automated (OCR of published text) and manual means (transcription of hand-written text from ornithologist William Brewster). Multiple outputs of the same page are then compared and differences incorporated into an online digital game in which the public will help verify the accuracy of individual words. Those corrections will then be incorporated back into the BHL portal for viewing by users and to enable full text searching. The project’s game designer, Tiltfactor, has recently completed and beta-tested 2 initial prototypes for both gaming and non-gaming audiences. The final games are expected to go live in May 2015. To follow the project, which runs through November of 2015, see

William Brewster's journals available for transcription in the ALA/Australian Museum Biodiversity Volunteer Portal.

Help us transcribe William Brewster’s journals and diaries in the ALA/Australian Museum Biodiversity Volunteer Portal (click on any of the William Brewster projects listed) and FromThePage! Find guidelines for transcribing the documents here.

Mining Biodiversity: Semantics and the Crowd 

In the near future, the Mining Biodiversity Project, whose USA partners' participation is also funded by IMLS, will be crowdsourcing the creation of a gold standard annotated set of pages to train the mining algorithms that will search for named entities (ie. concepts like taxa, places, people, habitat, traits). After that, a bigger group of volunteers will help validating the pre-annotated relations through time (events) automatically discovered from our BHL corpus. Stay tuned for more information on this project and related crowdsourcing activities.

The Field Book Project: Improving Access to Researchers' Fieldnotes 

The Smithsonian Field Book Project has been hard at work discovering and making accessible field book materials through cataloging, digitization, and online publication. Thanks to dedicated staff and volunteers, the Project has made huge strides in that direction. To date, 90 fieldbooks digitized by The Field Book Project have been ingested into BHL.

However, no celebration of success would be complete without a mention of the passionate “volunpeers” of the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Field books are often difficult to search and read due to their age and generally hand-written entries; pages may be faded and smudged, handwriting may be cramped or scribbled or stained by exposure to the elements, and the author may have used symbols and index marks that are foreign to modern readers. Unless a researcher knows exactly what they are looking for, they may be discouraged by the time and effort it takes to parse the archival text! Thankfully, the Smithsonian Transcription Center, which opened to the public on August 12th, has included the Field Book Project as one of its partners since the very beginning, allowing us to ask the crowd for assistance in conducting detailed readings and transcribing of field book content.

James Peter's fieldnotes from Mexico (1949-50), transcribed for The Field Book Project in the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

Each item that goes into the Transcription Center must first be transcribed and then reviewed by a volunpeer, who must create an account and can then access both the training documents on the site and also the rich community on the Center and on related social media platforms for questions and answers. Several of the volunpeers have become “super users,” transcribing and reviewing a large volume of material, and also serving as rich information sources for new transcribers on how to document tricky situations such as foreign characters, symbols, marginalia, and in field books in particular, the scientific names for observed flora and fauna.

At last count there were 84 items in the Transcription Center, 69 of which had been fully transcribed, an incredible resource for researchers and reference archivists alike! More fieldbooks are being added continuously and the eventual goal is to place those completed transcriptions into BHL alongside the original field books. The crowd of volunpeers has and is enabling the Field Book Project to offer more and better access to everyone from professional researchers to curious onlookers, and sometimes even leads researchers to information that may never have been discovered without the dedicated assistance of the volunpeers on the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

Become a volunpeer today and help us transcribe field notes to improve access to these valuable primary-source documents!

We Love Our Users!

With over 44 million pages of biodiversity literature, several million images, and a desire to continuously improve access to and discovery of these materials, leveraging the power of the crowd is a match made in heaven for BHL. With contributions from our users, we can ensure that our wealth of biodiversity information can continue to inspire discovery of the natural world. Thank you for your contributions, and if you’d like to know more about how you can contribute, send us feedback.

Trish Rose-Sandler, BHL Data Analyst, Missouri Botanical Garden
Julia Blase, Project Manager, The Field Book Project
Grace Costantino, BHL Outreach and Communication Manager

The Art of Life project is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (Grant number PW-51041-12).
Mining Biodiversity is funded in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant number LG-00-14-0032-14).

Purposeful Gaming is funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (Grant number LG-05-13-0352-13).

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Beautiful Monster: Mermaids

In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed out from Spain with a mission to find a western trade route to Asia. Instead, he found a whole “New World”…and something altogether more mysterious.

On January 9, 1493, near the Dominican Republic, Columbus spotted three “mermaids.” How did he describe them? “They are not as beautiful as they are painted, since in some ways they have a face like a man.”

The myth of a marine human extends as far back as 5,000 BCE, when the Babylonians worshipped a fish-tailed god named Oannes. John Ashton, author of Curious Creatures in Zoology, proposes that this is the first depiction of a merman. Also in classical antiquity, the goddess Atargatis, chief goddess of northern Syria, was depicted as a fish-bodied human, thus constituting the first known representation of a mermaid.

Ancient god Oannes, perhaps first representation of a merman. Ashton, John. Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890.

By the Common Era, mermen and mermaids had made their way into the accepted zoological canon. Pliny the Elder, who lived in the first century CE and had quite a lot to contribute to the discussion of mythical beasts, asserted that mermaids were real. According to Edward Topsell’s 1601 translation, Pliny stated,

“And as for the Mermaids called Nereides, it is no fabulous tale that goeth of them: for looke how painters draw them, so they are indeed: only their body is rough and scaled all over, even in those parts where they resemble a woman.” 

Tritons, or Nereids, the merpeople of the Greeks and Romans. Ashton, John. Curious Creatures in Zoology. 1890.

In the centuries that followed, many people claimed to actually see mermaids. In 1608, during an expedition to discover the Northwest Passage, Henry Hudson claimed that several crewmembers spotted a mermaid. From the naval upwards, she was like a woman, with long, black hair, but she had a tail like a porpoise.

Mermaid of the type inhabiting the Dutch East Indies. Valentijn's mermaid, after Fallours. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

By the eighteenth century, many believed that mermaids inhabited the seas surrounding the Dutch East Indies. The official painter of the Dutch East India Company, Samuel Fallours, included a tantalizing mermaid within his 1718 drawing depicting the assortment of exotic biodiversity found around the islands. Francois Valentijn included a copy of Fallours’ mermaid in his publication on the East Indies, entitled Natural History of Amboina (1727). He claims that this “monster resembling a siren” was captured on the coast of Borneo.

Mermaid as Monster 

Valentijn’s “monster” title alludes to the fact that merpeople were not always represented in a sensual light. Sometimes, they were just plain monsters. Within the 13th century Norwegian manuscript Konungs skuggsjá, we read of the merman:

“The monster is tall and of great size and rises straight out of the water…It has shoulders like a man but no hands…No one has ever observed it closely enough to determine whether its body has scales like a fish or skin like a man. Whenever the monster has shown itself, men have always been sure that a storm would follow.” 

Sea Satyr, or Sea Demon. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

And of course, we can’t omit Conrad Gessner from our discussion. His 16th century book Historia Animalium depicts the Sea Satyr, also calling it a sea demon. According to John Ashton, Gessner “tries to pass it off as a veritable merman.” Gessner also claims that, on November 3, 1523, a man-fish, about the size of a five year old boy, was seen at Rome.

Man-fish, about the size of a boy, seen at Rome. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

Two other curious, merman-esque monsters include the Monk and Bishop Fish. Gessner, and later others including Guillaume Rondelet, Ulisse Aldrovandi, and Gaspar Schott, portray these beasts, claiming that a Monk-fish was caught off Norway, in a troubled sea, and that the Bishop-fish was seen off the coast of Poland in 1531. Despite such observational reports, these monsters were likely a commentary on the religious tension of the day, resulting in an association between cleric figures and monsters.

Monk and Bishop Fish, as republished by Schott. Not all historians accepted the full veracity of these beasts. Guillaume Rondelet, who included a picture of the bishop fish in his 1554-55 book, stated, "I think that certain details beyond the truth of the matter have been added by the painter to make the thing seem more marvelous." (Ellis, pg. 85). Schott, Gaspar. Physica Curiosa. 1662.

Mermaids Through Misidentification 

If an exploration of historic monsters has taught us anything, it’s that most were not fabricated out of pure myth. Usually, they proceed from an attempt to categorize an unknown animal sighting.

Bernard Heuvelmans, considered the father of cryptozoology, studied the process by which unknown animals become monsters and monsters are identified as known animals. Of this transformation, he wrote, “The mythifying process can sometimes be carried to the point of altering its object beyond recognition.”

Case in point: The Manatee.

Manatees. Biologia Centrali-Americana. Mammalia. 1879-82. Read a manatee dissection in this 1941 fieldbook by Edward Chapin from The Field Book Project. 

As Heuvelmans explained,

“Since the manatee has pectoral mammae…and a body that tapers to a fishlike tail, it has always been identified, on both side of the Atlantic, with the fascinating mermaid, despite its (to our eyes) ugly face…” 

The three mermaids that Columbus spotted in 1493 (or sirens as he called them), were undoubtedly manatees. He, and many explorers after him, determined that these aquatic mammals were mermaids in flesh and blood. Sightings of dugongs, a member of the manatee’s order, have also been associated with mermaids throughout history. Indeed, the order containing manatees and dugongs to this day is called “Sirenia.”

Dugong and Manatee. Craig, Hugh. Johnson's Household Book of Nature. 1880.

Manatees aren’t the only animals that have played the part of a mermaid. In the thirteenth century, a fisherman in Lake Constance, outside Bregenz, Austria, found a mermaid. He heard a voice call to him from the sea, saying, “Take my daughter and hang her in the Arch of Martinster. She is begat of a land woman and is of no use here.” He followed the voice’s command and hung the mermaid in the archway, after which it died in a contorted shape. The true identity of the creature? A shark, possibly a Porbeagle. The original mummified shark was replaced with a stone replica so that it could always stand guard over the city.

Bregenz Mermaid, actually a mummified shark. McCormick, Harold. Shadows in the Sea. 1963.

Of course, mistaking a manatee or a shark for a mermaid with breasts and flowing locks, which so many sailors vehemently claimed to have seen, seems impossible. It’s clear that some good old exaggeration (and blatant lies) contributed to the mermaid myth.

Mermaids Through Fabrication 

The lies associated with the mermaid’s history are more tangible than exaggerating manatees as beautiful women. “Unlike most other monsters, which, almost by definition are very large” explains Richard Ellis in his book Monsters of the Sea, “’mermaids’ are small enough to tempt people to manufacture them.” (pg. 80). And that’s exactly what they did.

Mermaid Fabrication falls into two general categories: "Monkey" Mermaids and Jenny Hanivers.

"Monkey" Mermaid. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

"Monkey" Mermaids made their way into western mermaid lore in the nineteenth century. Apparently manufactured in Japan, these twisted mermaid interpretations were created by combining a small monkey’s head and torso with a dehydrated fish. In the 1840s, P.T. Barnum made a fortune by exhibiting what he claimed, and successfully convinced many people, were the remains of a mermaid. Today it is famously known as the Feejee Mermaid.

Barnum's Feejee Mermaid. Lee, Henry. Sea Fables Explained. 1883.

Over time the Jenny Haniver also came to be associated with mermaids. The first known illustration of a Jenny Haniver appears in Gessner’s Historia Animalium in the mid-1500s.

A ray, mutilated to look mermaid-esque. This image is the first known depiction of a Jenny Haniver-style specimen. Gessner, Conrad. Historia Animalium. 2nd Ed. 1604.

What exactly are these disturbing specimens? They are mutilated elasmobranchs - either a ray, skate, or guitarfish. The fins are cut so that they resemble wings, a string is tied around the “neck” area to give it a human appearance, and the tail is twisted into a suitable mermaid-esque form. The charade is then allowed to dry in the sun and varnished for preservation.

"basilicus ex raia," another Jenny Haniver-style farce. These specimens were also sometimes associated with dragons. Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo. 1640.

In the mid-1600s, Ulisse Aldrovandi published what he called a basilisk but which was created in the same fashion as Gessner’s Jenny Haniver. He includes a caption with his illustrations reading “basilicus ex raia,” indicating his awareness of the illegitimacy of the monster. Both Gessner and Aldrovandi classify these strange beasts as rays, but provide no further information.

Over time, rays mutilated to resemble human-fish hybrids came to be associated with mermaids under the term Jenny Hanivers. Ulisse Aldrovandi, who published this image in 1640, described it as "basilicus ex raia," indicating an awareness of the illegitimacy of the creature. See more fantastic historic monsters come to life on the Smithsonian Libraries' Tumblr. GIF created by Richard Naples (Smithsonian Libraries), based on Aldrovandi, Ulisse. Serpentum, et draconum historiæ libri duo. 1640.

Of course, by Gessner and Aldrovandi’s time, the term Jenny Haniver was not yet in use. The name does not appear in published form until 1928, when Gilbert Whitley wrote about these monsters in an Australian Museum Magazine article. The origin of the name is unknown, though it has been suggested that it is a derivative of ‘Anvers,’ the French name for Antwerp and a possible place of origin for the deception.

The Case for the Mermaid 

So, does the mermaid exist? Obviously not in the form of a half man or woman, half fish, but, to quote Dr. Ellis in Monsters of the Sea, “The sirens are still with us, however, in the form of the manatees and dugongs. They may not have the sex appeal of their namesake, and they certainly are not as beautiful as the mermaid, but they differ from their historic and literary ancestors in one irrefutable respect: they exist.” (pg. 98).

  • Ellis, Richard. Monsters of the Sea. New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc., 1994. Print.

Grace Costantino
BHL Outreach and Communication Manager