Wednesday, December 26, 2012

BHL Surpasses 40 Million Pages!

May we have a drum roll please.......

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is pleased to announce that we have just surpassed 40 million pages in our online collection!

That's 40 million pages of open access biodiversity literature that was previously available only in the collections of a few select libraries around the world. Making this literature freely available removes these boundaries to access, thus increasing the efficiency of scientific research and discovery of the natural world for anyone with an Internet connection.

Most popular book out of those 40 million pages? Taxonomic Literature 2 (TL2). Learn more about Candolle in TL2 and explore Mimosa pudica, which played a critical part in his research, in Favourite Flowers of Garden and Greenhouse.

BHL officially launched in May, 2007, with just over 600,000 pages of primarily botanical literature previously digitized for the Botanicus program at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Today, over 5 years later, we've added over 39.4 million more pages, contributed from the collections of 14 BHL member institutions, 3 global partners (including China, Australia, and Europe), and 124 providers that make their content openly available in the Internet Archive. Subjects covered in the collection now include not only botany but also zoology, scientific expeditions, gardening, fungi, conservation, archaeology, fossils, and ecology, to name a few.

2nd most popular book in BHL: 10th Ed. Systema Naturae 
While making over 40 million pages of literature freely available, we've also been working to improve discoverability of and access to the thousands of incredible scientific illustrations found within these digitized texts by exposing them via Flickr. To date, we've added over 55,000 images to the BHL Flickr, free for browsing, downloading, and reuse via a Creative Commons license. With funds received from a recent National Endowment for the Humanities grant, we're exploring ways to further automate the discovery of these images in BHL.

Beyond our work with images, we continue to embrace strategies that allow us to reach new audiences on new platforms and expand user opportunities to interact with our collections. This includes featuring content on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, as well as making select items available for free download in iTunes U.

While the common thread throughout this post may be that all of our content is free, the cost to digitize this material and support further technical development is not. Our 40 million pages was achieved thanks to the support of grant agencies, generous in-kind contributions and subventions from our member libraries, and donations from users like you. Help us reach another 40 million pages with a tax-deductible donation to BHL. Together, we can ensure that the world's biodiversity literature is available to everyone, everywhere.

The most-viewed image in the BHL Flickr? Sammlung neuer oder wenig bekannter aussereuropäischer Schmetterlinge (1850-58), bd. 1, pl. [45], with 2,145 views.

Following in the insect theme, the second-most-viewed image in Flickr: Field Book of Insects (1918), pl. 94, with 1,901 views.

View more images in the BHL Flickr!

* Find the image of the Asian Elephants, displayed in the Systema Naturae image above, in Johnson's Household Book of Nature.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Is that an Elephant on Your Christmas Tree?

Merry Christmas!

We hope you're having a marvelous time celebrating the Holidays today! We wanted to do something fun and different for our Christmas post. So, we decided to present (pun intended!) you with your own truly biodiverse BHL Christmas tree - with a twist!

Our tree has been decorated with 15 species ornaments. Each species on the tree is identified by its common name. Below the tree is a list of 20 scientific names. All 15 of the species on the tree are listed among the binomials, as well as 5 that are not on the tree.

Can you associate our ornaments with their scientific names? Simply click on the 15 binomials you believe are represented on the tree and hit "submit." The subsequent results screen will tell you whether you're a taxonomy master or beginner.

We hope you enjoy our little Christmas Tree present. Good luck, and we'll talk to you in the New Year!

Find the illustrations pictured on the Christmas Tree in BHL:
BHL Christmas Tree  1) Ostrich  2) Stag Beetle 3) Elephant 4) Musky Octopus 5) Spotted Eagle Ray 6) Deep-Dea Red Crab 7) Rattail Cactus 8) Peacock Butterfly 9) Humpback Anglerfish 10) Fly Agaric 11) Sunflower  12) Indian Cobra 13) European Storm Petrel 14) Lion 15) Ochre Sea Star

Friday, December 21, 2012

It’s The End of the World as We Know It. Do You Feel Fine?

The Great Day of His Wrath (1853), Artist: John Martin

If you are reading this post then the world hasn’t ended…but, you probably already knew it wasn’t going to end.

Don’t look so disappointed. Yes, the human race regrettably has always had a collective death wish, eagerly awaiting the promise of the end of times since the beginning of times. Or have we? Ironically, it was the Maya, the ancient civilization that gave us such a precise date by which to count down to our own demise: December 21, 2012, that Mayan archeologist William Saturno explains looked for evidence that life goes on:

"We keep looking for endings. The Maya were looking for a guarantee that nothing would change. It's an entirely different mindset."

Mayan cosmology is more concerned about looking for assurances of continued life on earth, not death. So be comforted on this day – a day like any other – and use it to reflect on the greater value that life seems to take on in the face of our imminent death.

Besides a hopeful view of the future, the Maya had many beliefs worth adopting. Another foreign notion to our fast-paced-commerce-driven society is the worship of nature and animals as divine gods. The Mayans had a great reverence for nature which might explain why their entire religious pantheon is made up of deities that are either animals or humans with anthropomorphic features. They believed in worshiping life in its diverse manifestations.

Book of the Week
To honor this ancient civilization's deep reverence for biodiversity we have chosen a singularly unique study undertaken by Alfred M. Tozzer and Glover M. Allen, for this week’s book of the week: :

Animal Figures in the Maya Codices (1910)

Mr. Tozzer is one of the most famous American Mayanists to date and Mr. Glover was a zoologist specializing in Mesoamerican species at the turn of the last century. Together, the duo was determined to match Mayan hieroglyphic characters, glyphs and artwork depicting Mayan gods to modern species analogues. They were fairly successful in identifying the specific species that the Maya would come in contact with and thus idealize as religious deities.

Mayan Art Inspired by Meso-American Species
Gilbert Borrego, our Flickr Guru, has scoured the BHL in search of Meso-american species and put together a 58 plate Flickr Collection dedicated to Mayan plant and animal life. We have matched these illustrations with the respective Mayan hieroglyphs present in Tozzer and Allen's work. Your job is to examine the glyphs and see if you see any resemblance between the Mayan art and their species counterparts.

Jaguar (Panthera onca)
The jaguar a predatory animal symbolized strength, courage, associated with great Mayan warriors. Some scholars have also purported that the beautiful animal is the ruler of the Underworld.

Blue Macaw (Ara militaris)
According to Tozzer and Glover, the  Macaw was one of the lightning beasts associated with the worship of fire and the sun. Their brilliant blue feathers were often used in ceremonial headdresses.
Yucatan Screech Owl or Moan-Bird (Otus choliba thompsoni)
The owl is a symbol of death and destruction and is regarded as the Moon or Night God. The Owl resides in the  mythological "House of Drought," unlike the serpent which occupies the "House of Rain"  therefore symbolizing life.

Serpent (Boidae)

The serpent was extremely important for it symbolized the live-giving force rain, and thus regulated the annual yield of  crops. It is most likely that this association was made because snakes show themselves in large numbers before and after rainfall.

King Vulture (Sarcoramphus papa)
king vulture

Scholars have speculated that the King Vulture symbolizes power as well as sacrifice. According to Mayan mythology 'lesser' Vultures would not eat until the King came down and plucked out the eyeballs and entrails of the dead.

Coppery-tailed Trogon aka The Quetzal (Pharomacrus mocinno)


The Quetzal, meaning 'large brilliant tail feather', is a rare bird found in certain parts of Southern Mexico. Its brilliant green color and particularly long tail feathers made it a sacred bird to the Mayans that was reserved for use in headdresses of rulers. The bird is associated with the mythical hero Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent god, whom the Mayans mistook conquistador Hernán Cortés for. According to an account by Alexander von Humboldt, the Mayans were impatiently awaiting the return of this god because he would bring a time of great peace with him. Read more about that here.

Clearly, Mayans were more concerned with the cycle of life rather than the end of the world as we know it. In the spirit of their great culture, take the time to celebrate your continued life today. And if for some reason you were in a panic about the world ending, then calm yourself and visit NASA's 2012 de-bunked website.You'll surely feel better.

Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian 
We hope you enjoyed this post. Interested in guest-blogging for BHL? We'd love that! Natural history, biodiversity and conservation topics are especially welcomed. Email us your ideas at

Monday, December 17, 2012

The Wright Brothers, the Piping Plover, and the Seaside Amaranth

Image from National Air and Space Museum Archive,
Smithsonian Institution
Today is the 109th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' historic first flight. That flight, which took place on the barrier island beaches off the North Carolina coast was witnessed not only by the camera that took the iconic photo of Orville piloting and Wilbur running alongside the wing, but also by a host of now threatened and endangered species.

Kill Devil Hills, a group of sandy dunes near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina is now part of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, the nation’s first national seashore. Many of the plants and animals that the Wright Brothers would have seen during the years they spent along the North Carolina coast as they teased out the engineering principles of powered flight are now gone, others endangered:

Download the full plate of the Piping Plover on BHL Flickr

The Piping Plover (Charadrius melodus) can still be found along the North Carolina beaches, but is listed as "near threatened" by the IUCN. Their sandy white plumage makes them masters of camouflage and allows them to effortlessly blend in with the Hatteras seashore.  The two biggest threats to the plovers are habitat loss and disturbance of their nests.

Download the full plate of the Seaside Amaranth on the BHL
Amaranthus pumilus (commonly called the seaside amaranth, seabeach amaranth, dwarf amaranth, or coast amaranth) was also a likely silent witness to the Wright's flight. This ground-hugging annual, which once ranged widely on the East Coast of United States and grew abundantly on the barrier island beaches of the Carolinas, is now threatened.

A lot can change in 109 years. A primary motivating factor for global BHL staff, who have worked so hard to build the Biodiversity Heritage Library, is to provide taxonomists and conservationists with the tools that they need to name, identify, describe, and ensure that the species which line our national seashores are around for the next 109 years -- to 2121 and beyond!

-Martin Kalfatovic, Biodiversity Heritage Library Program Director

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Honoring the Man Who Revolutionized Bird Identification

A Celebration of Chester A. Reed on the 100th Anniversary of his Death
by Michel Chevalier

Michel Chevalier
In the early 1930s, the name of Chester A. Reed was known to all amateur and professional ornithologists in the United States and Canada. Today, there are few who remember him. And yet, he was the first to develop the concept of the "Field Guide " by publishing his Bird Guide Part 2, Land Birds East of the Rockies (1905)*, which presented for  the  first time colored illustrations of birds in a small format book convenient for use in the field (3 X 5 ½ inches).

Reed’s most prominent publication, Bird Guide Part 2 revolutionized the art of bird identification in the field and directly contributed to public education about identification practices. Following the success of this publication, several other identification guides were published, including the first color "Field Guide" to wild plants in 1907 and, in 1911, with the collaboration of S. Bowdish Beecher, the first color "Field Guide" of the Audubon Society of New Jersey - Guide to the Birds of New Jersey.

Diagram of a bird, from Bird Guide Part 2

Reed’s publication history extends significantly beyond his renowned field guides. Between 1901 and 1906, Chester published 67 issues of the magazine American Ornithology, for Home and School. This journal was dedicated to the education and conservation of birds. Between 1903 and 1912, he published 24 books mainly on the topic of ornithology.

The Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker, in Bird Guide Part 2

One hundred years ago today (on December 16, 1912), at the age of 36 and five days after contracting pneumonia, Chester died. At that time, he was planning the trip of his dreams in Amazonia. Fate decided otherwise.

It was not until 22 years after his death that another talented illustrator adopted his format and improved on it, thus enabling a new generation of fans to indulge their favorite hobby. Roger T. Peterson was introduced to birding through Chester’s books and the publication of his Field Guide to the Bird in 1934 became a new source of inspiration for future authors of ornithology.

Sandpiper and Curlew Eggs
My interest in Chester A. Reed began in 2009. I wanted to pay tribute via a web project to the publication of his book North American Birds Eggs in 1904. I soon realized that there was no information on his life history and even institutions and historians were at an impasse on his personal life.

My research on Reed lasted 2 ½ years. I enlisted the help of many individuals, notably Mrs. Jean Mayo (specialist in genealogy) who enabled me to discover what history had forgotten. She helped me track down one of the last descendants of the Reed family. Mrs. Gail Berkshire had preserved the family history, and she allowed me access to his archives.

The generosity of Mrs. Berkshire has allowed me to trace a large part of the personal life of Chester, including a better understanding of the close relationship between Chester and his father Charles K. Reed, who was the publisher of all his books. This relationship earned him a great reputation amongst the birders of his time.

I could not keep this information to myself. I had to share this history and was motivated to create a website devoted to his biography and that of his father and mother. I wanted to make the experience others have of his life similar to a visit to a museum. Thus, at the end of each webpage, I present a little slideshow that allows visitors to view some of the archival material which I used in this research (see an example here-must have a Swiff player on your desktop to view).

First ad for Bird Guide pt. 2
The website also includes a Gallery section, which presents several of Reed’s illustrations which have never been published before. For instance, there you will find the first advertisement for the "Bird Guide" published in 1905.  All this valuable information has been preserved for over 100 years by the Reed family.

For the first time, all of the 34 books published by Chester and his father have been documented via this website. Each book has its own story and allows us to follow the evolution of this great pioneer of ornithological literature from the early 20th century.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) has many of the books published by Chester A. Reed and his father Charles K. Reed. This is the only collection in digital format available on the Web. It will allow many people to become familiar with his work and discover a teacher whose passion for his research is as obvious today as it was 100 years ago.

The life of Chester A. Reed has long been a mystery to historians. Thanks to the research now presented on the Chester Reed website, this is no longer the case. His work played an important role in the history of recreational ornithology in America. He should not be forgotten.

- Michel Chevalier

Do you love picture riddles? Then American Ornithology, for the Home and School has something just for you! Take a look at the image below and see if you can identify the birds indicated in each clue.

* Bird Guide Part 2 in BHL is 1906 edition.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Spreading Holiday Cheer

How does BHL celebrate the holidays?

As a project, we work to raise awareness about the plight facing the Earth's biodiversity today and provide ways to help preserve scientific knowledge, support research, and conserve species. As a consortium, our BHL member institutions spread some fantastic holiday cheer by featuring some exciting seasonal exhibits.

We decided to celebrate the holidays this year by taking you through a virtual tour of the seasonal exhibitions at some of our member institutions and, as an added bonus, showcase this year's BHL "superstars" for each member. What's a BHL "superstar," you ask? Well, today, it's each member's most popular book in BHL this year. Some of them just might surprise you!

American Museum of Natural History

Did you know that a group of jellyfish is called a smack? Or that a group of kangaroos is called a mob? A group of wise owls? It's called a parliament.

"Smack" of jellyfish (far left). Origami Art on the AMNH Holiday Tree. © AMNH/R. Mickens

The American Museum of Natural History has decorated its annual 13-foot tall holiday tree with origami "groups" of animals, inspired by the museum's collections. These "groups" highlight the fact that even solitary animals spend at least some time with others of their species. The 500 delightful origami ornaments took volunteers from OrigamiUSA approximately 5 months to construct, and include groups of zebras, giraffes, and even bacteria! 

The origami tree has been a hallmark of the museum's holiday celebrations for more than 30 years and will be on display through January 6. Don't miss your chance to experience biodiversity through paper art! How about using the over 50,000 images in the BHL Flickr to inspire your own origami art?!

The winner of the AMNH 2012 Most Popular Book? Ibis (1859), v. 1. 

Two Tyrannulets, from the Zimmerius genus. Plate 4 from v. 1, Ibis (1859)
The American Museum of Natural History has an extremely strong ornithology collection. Therefore, it's no surprise that the most popular book contributed by this library would be one of the cornerstones of ornithological literature. Frederick Godman and Osbert Salvin, the authors of Biologia Centrali Americana - arguably the most authoritative work on Mexican and Central American biodiversity - were two of twenty ornithology enthusiasts to establish this journal, which is still published today, in 1859. Explore the illustrations of the Ibis in our past blog post.

California Academy of Sciences

Snowman Dome at CAS. © CAS
Think you won't find much snow this Holiday Season in California? Think again! The 'Tis the Season for Science event at the California Academy of Sciences features live reindeer, research specimens illustrating how various species cope with cold temperatures, a snowman-shaped digital dome featuring programming about the science of the seasons, and, yes, snow in the piazza every 30 minutes!

Live reindeer at CAS! © CAS
Some interesting tidbits from CAS: Did you know that the reindeer is the only deer species in which both males and females exhibit antlers? Did you know that species deal with harsh winters, generally, by adopting 1 of 2 strategies: heading south or hibernating? Perplexed by the bi-hourly snow falling at CAS? It's temperature-resistant and biodegradable!

The CAS Holiday Exhibit 'Tis the Season for Science will be open through January 6. Don't miss your chance to experience polar bears, geese, reindeer, and snow in California! In honor of the CAS caribou attraction, enjoy this Reindeer Holiday Greeting Card from BHL!

Excerpt from the Rollo Beck Galapagos expedition journal.
The most popular book from the California Academy of Sciences this year? The Rollo Beck Galapagos Expedition Journal!

The Rollo Beck Journal was the first field notebook to be ingested into BHL. As part of the IMLS Connecting Content project, CAS is digitizing field notebooks (essentially the scientific journals kept by researchers while on expeditions and/or performing field work) in its collection. This journal gives a broad overview of the 1905-06 expedition to the Galapagos, led by Rollo H. Beck. An interesting highlight from this journal? It includes a passage relating the first news Beck received of the 1906 fire that destroyed nearly all of CAS's collections. Learn more about the journal and the Connecting Content grant in this past blog post.

Missouri Botanical Garden

Fairy Tale Cottage at MOBOT's Gardenland Express. © MOBOT
It's a holiday wonderland in St. Louis this year with the Gardenland Express! Staff and volunteers have transformed the Garden's Orthwein Floral Display Hall into a whimsical fantasy complete with a fairy tale cottage, 900 feet of miniature train tracks, and a stunning array of traditional holiday plants. The exhibit, celebrating "Merry Botanical Traditions," took years to plan and even features silk poinsettia, holly, and Christmas Cactus constructed by artisans from the Garden's previous Lantern Festival.

Find out what it takes to transform a barren room into a holiday treat in the video below. If you're in St. Louis anytime before January 1, don't miss your chance to experience the wonder for yourself! Maybe you can use our botanical illustrations to identify some of the plants featured in the exhibit!

This year, the MOBOT "Superstar" award goes to.....Systema Naturae (1758), v. 1, 10th Ed., by Carl Linnaeus.

The first description of a lion in the 10th Ed. of Systema Naturae, with an illustration of a lion in Brehm's Life of Animals.

It's probably not very surprising that the publication that marked the beginning of zoological nomenclature is the 2012 most popular book contributed by the Missouri Botanical Garden. But did you know that, though Linnaeus' first edition of Species Plantarum and this tenth edition of Systema Naturae are heralded as the starting points of binomial nomenclature for botany and zoology, respectively, the concept for the system was partially developed by Gaspard and Johann Bauhin in the late 1500s? Learn more about Linnaeus, Species Plantarum and Systema Naturae in our previous blog post.

New York Botanical Garden

It's all about the trains this year for BHL's botanical partners! Celebrating the season with the Holiday Train Show, the New York Botanical Garden has laid a quarter of a mile of miniature train tracks throughout a lush botanical backdrop populated by reconstructions of 140 of New York's famous landmarks. The best part? These reconstructions, the products of Applied Imagination, are crafted using natural materials like bark, twigs, fruit, seeds, and stems!

What delightful icons will visitors to the seasonally-converted Enid A. Haupt Conservatory at NYBG encounter? To name just a few: Yankee Stadium, New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Bridge, and, new this year, the Macy's location made famous by "A Miracle on 34th Street." The Artists' Studio, part of the exhibit, gives visitors a behind-the-scenes view of how these marvelous buildings are constructed, as well as a chance to experience some international icons, including the Sphinx and Parthenon.

Have kids? Then NYBG's Gingerbread Adventures, which gives children a chance to play inside a life-size gingerbread house and decorate gingersnaps, is right up your alley!

The Holiday Train Show runs through January 13. Don't miss your chance to experience New York with botanical eyes!

The most popular book this year contributed by NYBG? Again in the spirit of BHL botanical institutions, it's v.1, pt.1 of the 11th edition of Systema Naturae (1760). The next twelfth edition, the last published under Linnaeus' authorship, was comprised of 2,400 pages, expanded from the original eleven pages of the first edition (published in 1735).

Smithsonian's National Zoo

ZooLights Entrance. See more ZooLights Images. © SI.
Every year, the Smithsonian's National Zoo lights up the dark winter nights with thousands of Christmas lights strung together to form animal silhouettes. This year is no exception, with more than 500,000 environmentally-friendly LED lights depicting dozens of dazzling species. Free to the public, the ZooLights event runs until January 1 on select days. Don't miss this opportunity to see a mamma and baby panda, brown kiwi, elephants, a python, a lion, and even a cow like you've never seen them before!

And not to spoil the train theme, the National Zoo is also featuring a farm-themed miniature train at the Visitor Center.

Farm-Themed Train at National Zoo Visitor Center. © SI.
The most popular book contributed to BHL by the Smithsonian Libraries also happens to be the most popular item in BHL. What is it? Taxonomic Literature (1976), v. 1.

Charles Darwin in TL2. Specimen from Cambridge University Herbarium collected by Darwin on Beagle Voyage.
More commonly known as TL2, Taxonomic Literature: a selective guide to botanical publications and collections with dates, commentaries and types "provides the most comprehensive biographical and bibliographical analysis for systematic botany literature published between 1753 and 1940." In all, TL2 is comprised of 15 volumes, organized by author name. The volumes represent an extensive list of botanists who have published botanical literature between 1753 and 1940. Each entry provides a short biography of the author, the location of any specimens they may have collected, a list of publications that author has published, and, based on analysis of more than 100 library collections, information about which libraries may hold a copy of each publication.

The Smithsonian Libraries' online TL2 project indexes corrected OCR for the TL2 volumes scanned for BHL to provide additional search and analysis functionality, including author, author name abbreviation, and title abbreviation search support.


We hope you get a chance to visit one of the exceptional Holiday Exhibits at our BHL member institutions.  From all of us here at BHL, we wish you very Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays from BHL! Find this and other Holiday Greeting Cards on Pinterest.

- Grace Costantino, Program Manager, Biodiversity Heritage Library

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Perfect Holiday Gift

Preserving Biodiversity Knowledge and Strengthening Conservation Efforts

The Extinct Carolina Parakeet. Captured by Mark Catesby.
In 1918, the last known surviving Carolina Parakeet, the only parrot species native to the eastern United States, died. While museum specimens may help us retain some information about this species, for many others, everything we know is contained in a single description found within a hard to find book or article. While there is nothing we can do to bring these extinct species back, we can preserve our knowledge of them to help avoid future extinctions.

The Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), in its global efforts to digitize biodiversity literature and make it freely available to the world, ensures that the knowledge needed to identify species, facilitate further scientific research, and support conservation efforts is available to everyone, everywhere. Thanks in part to donations from users like you, BHL currently provides access to nearly 40 million pages and over 50,000 images.

Celebrating the BHL-Africa via Travel Posters!
In 2012, BHL significantly advanced the breadth and depth of its collections and the opportunities to engage with its digitized resources. BHL added over 12,000 items and over 3.7 million pages to its collections this year, supported in part by the addition of two new members to the BHL consortium: the United States Geological Survey and Cornell University. Furthermore, BHL continued to serve new and widespread audiences by establishing a greater presence across social media channels, resulting in over 30,000 new images in Flickr this year; biodiversity facts, history, and trivia communicated via Tweets, Blog and Facebook posts; and downloads through iTunes U, all free to the public. BHL continues to expand globally, as evidenced by the June, 2012, BHL meeting in Cape Town, South Africa, designed to support the development of a BHL-Africa.

The most rewarding measure of BHL's successes comes from the frequent testimonials received from users:

"The BHL website is an extremely valuable resource and is crucial to my research."

"Being in a small town in Africa made accessing literature especially difficult, but I no longer feel so disadvantaged with the advent of BHL."

"BHL makes my research so much easier! I absolutely love it. A million times thank you!"
The BHL's substantial growth and activity has been supported by our dedicated patrons whose gifts we depend on to fund the digitization of additional texts, technical development for the program, and improvement of data curation. This holiday season, as you continue to seek the perfect gift for your loved ones, consider giving a gift to the planet by supporting scientific research and conservation efforts across the globe through a tax-deductible donation to the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

As a gift from our BHL family to yours, enjoy these BHL Holiday Greeting Cards and Travel Posters! Download them for free from the BHL Pinterest. Happy Holidays!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lepidoptera Love: Nabokov's Untold Story

“I have hunted butterflies in various climes and disguises: as a pretty boy in knickerbockers and sailor cap; as a lanky cosmopolitan expatriate in flannel bags and beret; as a fat hatless old man in shorts.”

Although Vladimir Nabokov is remembered as one of America's most venerated novelists, his first and most beloved pastime was not the writing of books, but the chasing of butterflies. Nabokov loved butterflies long before Humbert Humbert fell so tragically in love with his adolescent nymphet and long after American parents had stopped naming their children "Lolita."

Book of the Week: Nabokov's Childhood Inspiration
In celebration of Nabokov's lifelong love for this branch of entomology, this week's choice for Book of the Week is:

From VN's personal collection
The three volume set of this work indisputably shaped Nabokov's first perceptions of the hidden world of taxonomy; a world concerned with type specimens, small red tags, and the tiniest of minutia. It has been confirmed that the Nabokov family library in Vyra, Russia held a copy of this book. Perhaps, it is the very same one that Nabokov is enjoying featured in the picture above. Although Nabokov appears to exhibit the politeness and propriety as expected from a young aristocratic boy, one can only imagine a young Vladimir privately perusing this book's pages and beautiful color lithographs with gluttonous delight.

A little known fact is that Nabokov deeply admired Samuel Hubbard Scudder, author of this work. Nabokov emigrated to the United States in 1940 and within a year moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he would volunteer to organize the then disheveled collections of butterfly specimens held in the Museum of Comparative Zoology's Entomology Department. This is the collection that was started by Samuel Scudder and A.S. Packard in 1859. In fact, many of the specimens held in the collection were personally contributed by Scudder himself. It was not by a twist of fate that Nabokov ended up in Cambridge; his admiration for Scudder had paved the way.

From the Book of the Week
In tribute to Scudder, upon discovering a misclassified species of  butterfly that bore the wrong label in the Museum of Comparative Zoology's collection, he renamed the sub-species of melissa after him: Lycaeides mellisa samuelis, commonly known as the Karner Blue.

It truly was a rare person to be held in high esteem by Nabokov who has been noted by his biographers to be a markedly irreverent man who saw little wrong with calling Ezra Pound a total fake, criticizing Audubon's technique in regards to his illustrations of butterflies, or perhaps most shocking: disparaging Darwin's Theory of Evolution. To the average person,  such criticism is considered blasphemy. Nevertheless, we all know Nabokov was far from average and behind each criticism he had as always had diligently and ever so painstakingly collected evidence to support his statements.

Click here to view all of the plates from this week's book of the week on Flickr and Pinterest!

Nabokov's Lepidoptera Career and Contributions
While working at MCZ, Nabokov's passion for lepidoptera was quickly noted. He was eventually appointed to a paid position as the de-facto Curator of Lepidoptera for the museum and served this post from 1942-1948. It would be during this time that he would produce his most important contributions to the field. His top three accomplishments were:

The Karner Blue, its own species?
1) The separation of the Karner Blue aka Lycaeides melissa samuelis from the Lycaeides idas group. As noted earlier, there was a butterfly that had been misclassified in the MCZ collections. This particular butterfly had previously not been observed and described by taxonomists. After doing extensive work in genitalia comparison for the butterfly, Nabokov renamed the specimen in honor of Scudder by giving the specimen his first name samuelis. Some have even suggested that this sub-species might be a full-fledged biological species in its own right but, further inquiry still needs to be done. Any takers? You can read his 1943 article in the open-source journal Psyche where he separates out the Karner Blue from the idas.

2) Providing a compelling hypothesis about the Polyommatus blues evolutionary and migratory paths in his 1945 Psyche paper Notes on Neotropical Plebejinae. He conjectured that they came from a common ancestor that lived about 10 million years ago in Asia and they migrated by way of the Bering Strait and moved slowly all the way down to Chile. While most full-time lepidopterists had disregarded Nabokov's findings as those of a dilettante, a recent paper has vindicated Nabokov's theory (using gene-sequencing technology to map evolutionary relationships) showing that he was correct about the migratory patterns of the Blues. Of the discovery, Naomi Pierce current Curator of Lepidoptera at the MCZ and co-author of the vindicating paper said she "was blown away...because he made these five predictions about what our time traveler would see, and he was spot-on correct about all of them." Read the full story which appeared in the NY Times last year.
Migratory patterns of the Blues from N.Pierce's et. al. article

3)  A complete revision of the North American members of the genus Lycaeides. After dissecting 350 specimens, Nabokov came up with three groups: Lycaeides argyrognomon (renamed idas in 1954), Lycaeides scudderi and Lycaeides melissa. Of the paper he wrote and published in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (available for free on the BHL) Nabokov said, "This work took me several years and undermined my health for quite a while. Before I never wore glasses. This is my favorite work. I think I really did well there." Later, a review from Alexander Klots author of Field Guide to the Butterflies of North America glowingly said "the recent work of Nabokov has entirely rearranged the classification of this genus."  Nabokov couldn't have been more pleased saying, "That's real fame. That means more than anything a literary critic might say."

Nabokov's fanciful illustrations
Nabokov's Legacy?
So are we to remember this man foremost as a Novelist or a Lepidoperist? Surely, his books would have been nothing without his butterflies. The pages of Nabokov's fictional work flutter with 570 mentions of butterflies and entomologists have now named over 20 species of butterfly after characters from his novels. Ironically, it was Nabokov's literary importance and notoriety that drew disdain from the very community that he so desired to be apart of. Most full time lepidopterists considered Nabokov a boyish aficionado with a reputation for excessive"splitting." Moreover, they felt he had not earned but garnered the title "most famous lepidopterist in the world," simply because of his literary status. Since many of Nabokov's contributions to the sciences have been vindicated we think it only right to remember him as much a lepidopterist as a literary giant. The notion that the twain can meet is perhaps embodied in a quote from his novel Pale Fire:

"Does there not exist a high ridge where the mountainside of 'scientific' knowledge joins the opposite slope of 'artistic' imagination?"

Yes, and it is on this Ridge where one will find Nabokov. At last Nabakov has been wholeheartedly accepted by the very community that once disregarded him. We know he would be pleased if he were alive today. Is it not comforting to know that a man of such incredible fame considered the life of the taxonomist, who busies himself with the classification and description of all of Earth's wonderful creatures, the most rewarding of all. He knew the work to be done was endless, the pay less than fabulous, and the fame? Are you kidding? The thought is laughable. The work of the taxonomist is oft overlooked and its characters considered by society as dusty anachronisms who do monotonous "detail-oriented things." Yet the work that is done is not done for the attention or glamor that it brings, but rather the inner satisfaction that comes from knowing that you are making a contribution that is vitally important to the existence and persistence of life.

Photocredit: US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ann Swengel
Today, the Karner Blues are poster-children of the conservation movement due in-part because of Nabokov's work on them. In the early 60's and 70's Nabokov was still able to catch them on road-trips from Cornell to Boston. However in 1992, the Karner blue butterflies were federally listed as endangered. The dramatic decline in their population is due to habitat loss and modification resulting from human activities.

Jacqueline Ford, Biodiversity Heritage Librarian

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