Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book of the Week: Mother Carey's Chickens

There are some things you just don't expect to find in BHL, and a witch on a broomstick is one of them. So when one of our book scanners sent a few of us here at BHL an image from one of the books he was scanning, we all did a double take. Indeed, smack-dab in the middle of a book on birds was an illustration of the epitome of a Halloween hag soaring over stormy waters, surrounded by birds. So, of course, we had to ask ourselves, why is there a witch in BHL?

To get more answers, naturally, we went to the source material. The illustration can be found in v. 2 of Ornithological Miscellany. According to this volume, Thalassidroma bullockii and Thalassidroma pelagica have both been given the nickname "Mother Carey's Chickens" by sailors, who had also given them the delightful alias of "Devil's Birds." The origin of this epithet is, apparently, in some dispute, at least according to our book of the week. The author writes that, according to Yarrell,

"These birds are supposed to be seen only before stormy weather, and therefore are not welcome visitors to sailors, who call them Devil's birds, witches, and Mother Carey's chickens - the last name said to have been originally bestowed upon them by Captain Carteret's sailors, probably from some celebrated ideal hag of that name."

However, the author points out that Hawksworth has a different story to tell. On his authority, Philip Carteret, Esquire, Commander of His Majesty's sloop the "Swallow," wrote in his journal,

"We also saw a great many Pintado birds, which are prettily spotted with black and white, and constantly on the wing, though they frequently appear as if they were walking upon the water, like Peterels, to which sailors have given the name of Mother Carey's chickens."

As the author relates, here Carteret speaks of this nickname as though it is "familiar to them and current in his time." Encountering such inconsistencies and dead ends, the author finished with, "Not being able to trace the pedigree of 'Mother Carey,' the only thing to be done is to have an illustration of herself and her work, with her brood around her." Indeed, our own research into the subject yielded very few additional discoveries.

We did find that Mother Carey is a supernatural figure that "personif[ied] the cruel and threatening sea" in the same way that Davy Jones does. Indeed, some assert that she is his wife. According to myth, she and Davy Jones are responsible for shipwrecks. Some claim that her name is a derivation of the latin name Mater cara, meaning "Precious Mother," but there is no concrete evidence to support this. When and where the name was first used in relation to storm-petrels, no one seems to know.

But, perhaps this enigma makes the phrase, and the corresponding illustration, all the more interesting! True, we cannot tell you why or when Mother Carey came into the picture, but we can still enjoy these little nuggets of fascinating art and contextual tidbits that we uncover in BHL. So, for your enjoyment, ladies and gentlemen, Mother Carey and her Chickens, as featured in v. 2 of Ornithological Miscellany!

This week's book of the week, v. 2 of Ornithological Miscellany, was contributed by the Smithsonian Institution. Love the illustrations and want to see all of them (lots of lovely birds illustrations in addition to witches!) from all volumes of Ornithological Miscellany? Then visit our Flickr site and see the collection on this week's book of the week!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Book of the Week: The Definitive Work on the Biodiversity of Cuba

Earlier this week, one of our followers on Twitter, @BibliOdyssey, posted a blog post entitled "Cuban Critters" about the BHL book Histoire Physique, Politique et Naturelle de l'ile de Cuba (1838-57), by Ramón de la Sagra. The post highlights some of the incredible illustrations found within this work. We particularly like the plates on scorpions and spiders, as we had been searching for some colorful images of these creatures in our collection. This being the case, we thought it highly appropriate to highlight this book as our book of the week.

Ramón de la Sagra had a very interesting, somewhat tumultuous, and highly politically-driven life. Born in 1798 in A Coruña, a province of Spain, he was labeled as an anarchist, politician, writer and botanist. His early life, which involved studying physics, anatomy, medicine, mathematics, and pharmaceuticals, was marked by repeated threats from the Inquisition for his liberal views, which ultimately resulted in his migration to Cuba in 1821 as an assistant to Agustìn Rodriguez, where he was eventually appointed to the position of Professor of Natural History of Cuba. In 1835, Sagra returned to Europe, settling in Paris.

Although Sagra represented the liberal party as an elected member of the Spanish parliament four times (1838, 1840, 1845 and 1854), he was expelled from both France and Spain (in 1849 and 1856, respectively) for voicing socialist and radical ideas. Despite these difficulties, his accomplishments included helping to create the Peoples' Bank of France and founding the world's first anarchist paper, El Porvenir, which was later closed by Ramón María Narváez, Duke of Galicia. He ultimately died in 1871 in Switzerland at the age of seventy-three.

While doing research for this post, we found that there is an original, Spanish version of this work, in addition to the French version mentioned earlier. Interestingly, the first edition, Spanish version came up for auction at Christie's in 1999 at an estimated £30,000 - £40,000. The copy at auction is considered "the only complete copy of the original Spanish edition to have appeared at auction in recent years," and the Spanish edition itself, according to Jorge Aguayo, who wrote a definitive study on the work in 1946, represents "the most complete and important work of its kind, and...the Spanish edition is now one of the most difficult works to find in perfect condition." Indeed, Aguayo went on to say that "La Sagra's Historia may be considered the most valuable possession for any collection specialising in Cuba and the Caribbean."

Apparently, the work itself, at least the Spanish version of it, was almost equally as rare when it was first published! In the words of Sagra himself, who "complained of the difficulties he encountered in supplying complete copies from the 190 parts issued over a period of twenty

"The copies that the [Cuban] government generously procured in order to protect them were, for the most part, incompletely distributed. Those who had taken subscriptions in the Island grew weary of waiting for the end of such a protracted, slow, and irregular process of publication. And of the copies I had reserved for myself, only very few could be completed, since a lot were lost in the warehouses of the editors during the long years that were required to finish the publication."

After further investigation, we found that we do indeed have a Spanish version of this work in BHL! We find this pretty impressive considering how rare the work is!

So, in conclusion, for our book of the week, we're featuring not just one version, but two versions of the same title by Ramón de la Sagra, Histoire Physique, Politique et Naturelle de l'ile de Cuba or Historia fisica, politica y natural de la isla de Cuba. You can take a look at v. 7 (text) of the French version, plates 1-20 of the insects, and all 13 volumes of the Spanish version. Considering the importance of this work when it comes to the biodiversity of Cuba, we think it's quite worthy of a few minutes (or hours!) of leisurely investigation!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

BHL and Our Users: John Pittman, the Mad Natural Historian!

Several weeks ago, we featured as our book of the week the Album of Abyssinian Birds and Mammals (1930), by Louis Agassiz Fuertes. In that post, we referenced one of our faithful BHL users, John Pittman (known to the Twitter universe as @drhypercube), who writes a blog entitled Diary of a Mad Natural Historian. This week, we have the pleasure of highlighting John as our BHL featured user. So enjoy the ruminations of a "Mad Natural Historian!" Oh, and if you're wondering about the picture, it's John as Sherlock's Natural Historian brother, Nepenthiphilous Holmes :-)

Q: What is your title, institutional affiliation (or alternative place of employment), and area of interest?
A: Like April 26th's user, Mathew Louis, I'm a recreational (but passionate!) natural historian. Hands-on interests include carnivorous plants, species orchids, poison dart frogs and birds of prey. I have a small dart frog collection, a growing plant collection and am a falconer. More bookishly, I'm fascinated by Asian flora, fauna, and landforms. Oh, and hummingbirds. My primary blog is Diary of a Mad Natural Historian.

Q: How long have you been in your field of study?
A: I've been peeking and poking since at least the early 60's, when an adult told me that I should always kick rocks before picking them up in case there was a scorpion underneath (this was in the Arizona desert). Unsurprisingly, many rocks were kicked that day - sadly, no scorpions were discovered - and metaphoric rock-kicking behavior persists to this day.

Q: When did you first discover BHL?
A: I'm guessing, but I think about six months ago via Twitter - maybe a retweet of @BioDivLibrary? My apologies for the imprecision - I really need a Memex with automatic associative trails.

Q: What is your opinion of BHL and how has it impacted your research?
A: I have a very high opinion of BHL - it is an incredible resource. I typically do a search on a species name to see what I can turn up. By way of example, my last search was for Eurycantha calcarata (a large stick insect) - i have a long simmering fly-tying project involving these critters.

Q: How often do you use BHL?
A: Approximately twice a week for searches and whenever a new blog post comes out.

Q: How do you usually use BHL (read the titles online/download whole PDFs/Selecting Pages to Download/etc.)?
A: I almost always read the titles online.

Q: What are your favorite features/services on BHL?
A: Book of the Week, hands down. For a dilettante/bibliomane like me, it's like open stack serendipity with curation.

Q: If you could change one thing about BHL, what would it be, or what developmental aspect would you like the BHL team to focus on next?
A: Natural history art and scientific illustrations are such a wonderful merger of precision and filtering (what aspects of the specimen are most important, etc.) - I'd love to see an image search. I sure hope one doesn't exist already and I just haven't figured it out!

Q: If you had to choose one title/item in BHL that has most impacted your research, or one item that you prefer above any other in BHL, what would it be and why?
A: I'll twist the question slightly and answer with my favorite author - William Beebe.

Thank you, John (or should we say @drhypercube) for sharing your passion with us! And while we do not yet have image search functionality in BHL (though we are working on grant proposals that may allow us to add something along these lines), we've recently been busy building our BHL Flickr account with images from our books. Check them out, and consider tagging the images with any keywords that may help others locate and enjoy the images as well!

And be sure to check out John's blog! You may find yourself transforming into a "Mad Natural Historian" yourself ;-)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

BHL goes live in Australia with launch of BHL-Australia site

BHL-Australia Screenshot
The newest addition to the BHL global family, BHL-Australia, has now launched. BHL in Australia is the digital literature component of the Atlas of Living Australia (ALA), a national project that aims to make biodiversity information more accessible and useable on line. It is a partnership between CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, the Australian natural history collections community and the Australian Government.

The Australian node project is being managed through Museum Victoria, based in Melbourne. Dr Elycia Wallis, the BHL Australia node team lead said "We are so pleased to have an Australian BHL node up and running. Now the fun part of developing new tools and functionality can start so that we can share these back to the global BHL community." The Australian node has taken the core BHL code and reworked it with a redesigned user interface. Designer Simon O'Shea and developer Michael Mason at Museum Victoria wanted to concentrate on providing the core functionality of BHL as well as giving an Australian feel to the site design by using many beautiful images of Australian native species.

Online developer Michael Mason
Source: Museum Victoria
New Australian scanning operations are just getting underway but we expect that, with many thousands of references to Australian species already in BHL references, Australian scanning will be a targeted activity. Museum Victoria, with new book-scanning equipment, will be leading the development of new scanning projects starting with the complete archive of Memoirs of Museum Victoria containing the first scientific descriptions of many Victorian animal species.

Quick links:

Dr Elycia Wallis
Manager, Online Collections, Museum Victoria
BHL-Australia team lead for Atlas of Living Australia

Book of the Week: The Fate of the Vulture in South Asia

There's no denying that, when it comes to vultures, most people feel no love lost if they fail to see them circling the skies in search of carcasses to feast upon. This sentiment is almost universally held, and so, when the infamous Indian vulture populations, which had become a staple throughout the country, started disappearing from the skies, roadsides, and roofs of the country, not many people took notice. Not, that is, until it was, quite possibly, too late.

Today, all three vulture species of South Asia (slender-billed (Gyps tenuirostris), white-backed (Gyps bengalensis), and long-billed (Gyps indicus)) are critically endangered. And the culprit? Diclofenac, a mild painkiller given to lifestock. The pain killer, though harmless to humans and livestock, has a devastating effect on vultures. After feeding on carcasses that have ingested the drug, vultures develop visceral gout - "untreatable kidney failure that causes a crystallized bloom across their internal organs. Death occurs within weeks." The current predicament these birds now find themselves in is poignantly captured in a recent article by Meera Subramanian entitled "India's Vanishing Vultures."

Two years after the cause of the problem - Diclofenac - was determined, the Indian government officially banned the sale of the drug for veterinary purposes. However, locals say that this has not stopped its use. Today, vulture population numbers have dropped by 97%. While fifteen years ago there were an estimated 15 million vultures in the Indian subcontinent, today those numbers are closer to 60,000.

People are trying to make a difference. Reporter Meera Subramanian wrote of her experience visiting the Pinjore Vulture Conservation Breeding Center, where Vibhu Prakash and a small team of researchers are attempting to breed captive vultures. One of three breeding centers constructed as part of the Vulture Recovery Plan that was enacted by the Indian government in 2004, it is the only center that "comes anywhere close to having twenty-five breeding pairs of each of the three Gyps [vulture] species." The fact that vultures produce only 1 egg per breeding cycle doesn't help matters. Since the center opened, only seventeen vultures have been successfully bred.

In light of this article and the alarming rate of decline for this species, we have selected as our book of the week The Fauna of British India, Including Ceylon and Burma: Birds, v. 3 (1895), by Eugene William Oates. Within this volume, Oates succinctly describes each of these vultures species (beginning with pg. 322), with the descriptions recounting a time when the species were plentiful and commonplace, a state which, unfortunately, we do not find today. The truth of the matter is, unless drastic changes are made quickly, accounts such as these may be the only manner in which future generations, or even this generation, can enjoy or learn about these creatures.

The status of the three vulture species in India and Southern Asia is tragic, and only time will tell if the efforts of individuals like Vibhu Prakash will save these species. Sadly, until the use of diclofenac is completely abandoned, it's unlikely that we will see significant progress towards the salvation of this species. We can only hope that raising awareness of this creature, and demonstrating how important the scavaging activities of these birds actually are to the
welfare of the humans that share their habitat (see Subramanian's article for more explicit information on the critical role these species play in the ecological health of their environemnt), will bring about a determination in the hearts of humans that may eventually serve as a revival for the species.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book of the Week: Illustrations and Fringe Science?

While doing some research for a report, we came across a delightful book entitled Natural History of the Animal Kingdom for the Use of Young People (1889), by W.F. Kirby. The work is meant to be an introduction to the animal kingdom for adolescents, as the title suggests, and presents the structure of the animal kingdom, and many particulars of the classes within it, alongside some absolutely brilliant illustrations. While the text itself is quaint in the way it presents and describes various aspects of the animal kingdom, it was, as is so often the case, the illustrations that really sucked us in. We believe they represent some of the most colorful and vivid in BHL.

The work is translated by Kirby from the original German - the work of Gotthilf Heinrich von Schubert. Schubert, a German physician and naturalist, lived from 1780-1860, and was known particularly for his lectures on Fringe Science, including animal magnetism, clairvoyance, and dreams. His book, The Symbolism of Dreams, was one of the most famous of its time and influenced such noteworthy individuals as E.T.A. Hoffmann and Sigmund Freud.

So, with that little nugget of information in the back of your mind, take a thirty second break from your day to enjoy these lovely illustrations, courtesy of the BHL! And remember, these are just a few of the illustrations that can be found in this book. Once you're done here, hop on over to BHL and see the rest!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

BHL and Our Users: Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino

For the past couple weeks you've seen a lot from us on the blog, Twitter and Facebook about Charles Darwin with our recent release of the Charles Darwin Library on BHL. This week, we feature a user dedicated to saving the remaining two endemic non-flying mammal species of Hispaniola, and his project, "The Last Survivors," is funded by the Darwin Initiative Fund. The beauty of this story from a socially-networked perspective? This user actually discovered BHL via Twitter! Social Media is a beautiful thing! So, without further ado, meet Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino!

Q: What is your title, institutional affiliation, and area of interest?
A: Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino. I work for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT). I am the field project manager for "The Last Survivors" which is financed by the United Kingdom government Darwin Initiative Fund. The project is a collaboration between organizations in the United Kingdom (DWCT and the Zoological Society of London) and the Dominican Republic (Hispaniolan Ornithological Society and the Dominican Republic National Zoo).

I am a forest ecologist and conservation biologist. My work involves carrying out research and trying to conserve the last two endemic non-flying mammal species of Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic) which are the Hispaniolan solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus) and Hispaniolan Hutia (Plagiodontia aedium). Both species are currently listed as endangered by the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN). We take a very holistic approach which includes investigations on current and past distributions of both species, behavioral studies, genetic studies, capacity building (training) of in-country biologists and raising awareness of both species. You can find out about our project from our website:

Q: How long have you been in your field of study?
A: I have been involved in conservation in one way or another for the whole of my life but have been involved professionally for eight years. I started my current job in October 2009.

Q: When did you first discover BHL?
A: About six months ago - via Twitter! It was quite a discovery for me. Having spent many hours in old, dusty libraries (oddly I grew quite fond of old, dusty libraries) during my academic years, it was great to discover a resources like this which offers you so much from the comfort of your desk.

Q: What is your opinion of BHL and how has it impacted your research?
A: BHL is an amazing resource. Not only is it useful but I love the way it has been put together so that it is also very user friendly. For me it means that we can look up information relating to the two species we are studying. Both were described in the 1830s but very little is known about them though some information is available in the historical literature. For example, Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo was one of the original Spanish colonizers to come to Hispaniola (modern day Haiti and Dominican Republic) and was the first to write about hutias in 1535 when he mentions that they were widely eaten and very tasty! Confirming that this species was killed and eaten in that period. We have also been able to access some great drawings of the species which we can use to both raise awareness and educate - my favorite is one from 1910 of a solenodon.

Q: How often do you use BHL?
A: Not as much as I'd like. My job takes me from my desk quite regularly (which is a good thing!) to areas where there is no phone receptions or internet (yes, there are still some places like this left). On average, probably once a month.

Q: How do you usually use BHL (read the titles online/download whole PDFs/Select Pages to Download/etc.)?
A: I start by having a look and reading online, but usually end up downloading the material to read it offline.

Q: What are your favorite features/services on BHL?
A: The way you can download a list of all your search results which allows you to come back and have a look at the material later on.

Q: If you could change one thing about BHL, what would it be, or what developmental aspect would you like the BHL team to focus on next?
A: I'd like to save my favorite articles on the website and then make them available to look at by other people. That would enable visitors to our website and Facebook page to easily access the fantastic historical material available on BHL. Maybe you can do that already and I just haven't discovered it yet!

It would also be great if BHL could link directly into something like Amazon so that you can download books and articles to reading devices with one click.

Q: If you had to choose one title/item in BHL that has most impacted your research, or one item that you prefer above any other in BHL, what would it be and why?
A: Undoubtedly if would have to be Solenodon Paradoxus which was written in 1910. Although this book is over 100 years old, our level of knowledge about this species (actually both species) has not moved on much since then. This book provides a baseline of knowledge for anyone wanting to know more about these amazing endangered and venomous mammals.

Thank you, Dr. Nunez-Mino, for taking the time to share your experiences with BHL and tell us about the critical work that you do to save two such adorable creatures.

As to your suggestions for BHL, while a partnership with Amazon might be (at least currently) out of our reach, a project that has long been in development for BHL may provide some of the functionality related to saving and sharing articles that you desire. The project is called Citebank, and it will eventually serve as an article repository for BHL, indexing and allowing users to find items at the article level. Currently, any PDFs that you create using the "Select Pages to Download" feature on BHL for which you enter at least title-level information during the generation process are stored and indexed on Citebank. You can search the repository for these articles, and others can access them (including the full PDF that you originally generated) as well. While Citebank is still in development, we have hopes that this service will eventually meet the critical article needs of our users.

Photo Credit: Caroline Forbes