Thursday, July 25, 2013

Happy Birthday, Beatrix Potter! (A Book of the Week about Rabbits)

In celebration of Beatrix Potter's birthday on July 28th, 1866, today's book of the week explores rabbits: The Rabbit, by James Edmund Harting, with a Chapter on Cookery, by Alexander Innes Shand.  This book was published in 1898 as part of the Fur, Feather and Fin Series, edited by A. E. T. Watson, that explored all kinds of wildlife and how to hunt and cook it (Frontmatter).  The book contains beautiful illustrations of European rabbits engaged in various activities, and describes rabbit behavior and physiology.  The following are examples of illustrations from Harting's book:

"Here's One Sitting" (Frontmatter)  

 A mother rabbit returning her baby to the burrow (21)

Hunters using a ferret to scare rabbits out of the burrow in order to shoot them (95)

Beatrix Potter was another illustrator who created lovely pictures of rabbits.  It is not surprising that Potter created such realistic illustrations of rabbits and rabbit behavior because she studied rabbit physiology and behavior in depth from the time she was a young child.  Potter was born into a nouveau riche family which had inherited large sums of money from relatives, and she grew up being cared for by governesses in a large home in Kensington, London.  Her parents did not bother themselves with paying much attention to her, and she "took her meals separately and seldom saw her parents except for a short visit in the evening" (MacDonald 231).  As a result, Potter had several small animals as pets to keep her company "that were sometimes hardly tame," including frogs, mice and rats (MacDonald 231).  Potter began keeping a journal in 1881 in order to avoid boredom, and she continued to write and sketch in it for over a decade, writing "in code and in a hand so small as to be virtually impenetrable" (MacDonald 231).  She visited local museums to study animal physiology, and when her family spent four months out of the year in the Lake District in England during Easter and summer vacations, Potter got even more in-depth physiology lessons about local wildlife:
Apparently allowed to roam unsupervised, Potter and her brother skinned and boiled dead animals until only the skeletons remained to be examined. . .In the museums Potter found special pleasure in studying and sketching animal skeletons.  Her later understanding of the way animal bodies functioned made her illustrated animals particularly vital--no false movement, no oddly shaped limbs--so that they always remain true to their various species.  Because the Kensington museums also preserved such decorative, domestic artifacts as furnishings and clothing, Potter accumulated various subjects in her sketchbooks, using them to study perspective to much advantage in her later books, where the low-to-the-ground vantage points of her animals show familiar objects from new angles.  (MacDonald 231-2)
Potter's initial entry into the publishing world came when illustrating greeting cards and the works of other authors, and when she published a scientific paper in 1897 on the reproductive cycles of certain mushrooms--mycology being an early passion of hers.  Her paper, "On the Germination of the Spores of the Agaricineae," had to be presented by a male friend of the family to the Linnaean Society of London since women were not allowed involvement with scientific groups yet; all of her findings in this paper have since been proven accurate.  When a family friend suggested she publish a children's book, she published an early version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit in 1901 with money that she had made illustrating greeting cards.  The Warne publishing house heard of Potter's book and agreed to reprint it, beginning a longstanding relationship between Potter and the publishing company (MacDonald 233).

An image of a first-edition 1902-version of The Tale of Peter Rabbit 
Beatrix Potter at 15 years of age, holding her pet springer spaniel, Spot.

The plot of Peter Rabbit's tale closely reflects the rabbit behavior described in Harting's book, The Rabbit--namely the part of the plot where Peter escapes into a farmer's garden and eats a lot of the farmer's vegetables, barely escaping capture by the farmer, and later returning to the safety of his mother's burrow.  Harting has described rabbits as voracious eaters compared with other animals, even as the cause of famine in the Spanish Balearic islands during the rule of Emperor Augustus (Harting 3), and includes a farmer's description of the rabbits' particular eating style:
A Suffolk farmer, who is a good sportsman as well as shrewd observer of facts connected with natural history, asserts that you may generally tell whether your turnips are nibbled by hares or rabbits by the difference in the mode of attacking the roots.  A hare will bite off the peel and leave it on the ground; a rabbit will eat peel and all.  (Harting 6)
Harting goes on to describe how rabbits also eat turnips more voraciously than rats do since "a rat when eating a turnip. . .will bit off the rind, as a hare does, and will leave it in chips on the ground; a rabbit. . .will eat peel and all" (Harting 6-7).  Another trait, aside from a large appetite for vegetables, which Harting's descriptions have in common with Potter's character, Peter Rabbit, is that of quick escape.  The purpose of the white underbelly of a rabbit, according to Harting, is to alert fellow rabbits when danger is near so that all can escape:
The advantage of having a white under-surface to the tail is also apparent on reflection; for when, on the approach of an intruder while rabbits are out feeding, those nearest to him begin to scuttle away, the little white flag in motion at once attracts the attention of others, and all speedily make for their burrows.  (Harting 7-8) 
Harting also recounts some interesting rumors about the origin of rabbits and the term, "rabbit," in western Europe, as well as some fascinating facts about their resilience.  Harting proposes that the rabbit was introduced to England by the Romans, who also brought the ferret to hunt the rabbit when it became too populous (Harting 1).  The Romans apparently learned from rabbits how to dig tunnels into enemy territory in order to conquer the land: "The Latin word cuniculus denotes both a rabbit and an underground passage.  Varro suggests that the rabbit derived its name from the burrow it forms, and Martial avers that rabbits first taught men to undermine enemies' towns" (Harting 3-4).  The origin of the term, "rabbit," begins with the Latin cuniculus, then the Italian coniglio, the Spanish conejo, Belgic konin, Danish and Swedish kaning, German kaninchen, Old French connin, Welsh cwningen, and Old English conyng and coney.  The Middle English term, "rabbet," had only been used to describe young rabbits.  Another Middle English term for the rabbit was "riote," which is the origin of the phrase "to run riot" (Harting 4).  Harting notes that rabbits are resilient, such that:
If by any accident the lower jaw of the animal is displaced, as occasionally happens from the impact of a shot, the incisors in the fractured jaw are distorted, and do not meet those above them, and as they are not then worn away by use, they continue to grow, sometimes to extraordinary length.  The manner in which animals thus deformed adapt themselves to new conditions is marvelous.  They not only contrive to feed, but to live a long time after the injury, as shown by the ossified condition of the fracture when at length it comes to be examined.  (Harting 5-6)
Rabbits are not only resilient, but also able to adapt to become family friends and pets:

When taken young and domesticated, wild rabbits not only become soon accustomed to the altered conditions of life, but will live for many years in captivity.  One, which was captured in Buckinghamshire when about ten days old and brought to London, had the run of the house and area, was tame, amusing, and cleanly in its habits.  It would follow the cook about like a dog, and was a constant playmate in the nursery.  In these circumstances it lived for six years.  (Harting 12)
It is no surprise, then, that Beatrix Potter became fascinated by these little creatures, as Harting describes them as smart and adaptable, and as his illustrations show them to be adorable.  Potter's children's stories and illustrations are a testament to her love and close observation of the rabbit.  Happy birthday, Beatrix Potter!  Here's to your, and our, interest in these remarkable animals!

Check out all of the illustrations to Harting's book, The Rabbit, at our Flickr stream:

For more information about Harting's book and some more info about rabbits, check out an older post BHL wrote on it here:

  • Harting, James Edmund.  The Rabbit.  London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1898.
  • MacDonald, Ruth K.  "Beatrix Potter."  British Children's Writers, 1880-1914.  Ed. Laura M. Zaidman.  Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 141.  Detroit: Gale Research, 1994.  pp. 230-248.
Written By: Laurel Byrnes, Marketing Intern for the Biodiversity Heritage Library


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

How BHL Helps Users Delve into the Wonderful World of Lepidoptera!

Today, we present an example of how BHL is being utilized to expand an award-winning database on the insect order Lepidoptera! 

Generic Names of Moths of the World: Generic Names and their Type-species by Brian Pitkin and Paul Jenkins is a catalogue of more than 32,000 genus-group names of the insect order Lepidoptera. First launched in July 2004, the site was awarded the Podalirius Star in November 2004. The catalogue has recently been updated, corrected where necessary and revitalised by the addition of links to scanned images of more than 58% of the cited references to the Biodiversity Heritage Library. The majority of the links are pre-1923 as a result of copyright restrictions on more recent publications.

Work on the electronic catalogue started by bringing together digital tag-delimited files on five and a half inch floppy discs of:
  • Hemming, 1967. Generic names of Butterflies of the World and their Type-species (Lepidoptera : Rhopalocera). Bull. Br. Mus. nat. Hist. (Ent.) Suppl. 9: 509 pp., 
  • Cowan, 1968 and 1970. Annotationes Rhopalogiques: 20 pp. Published privately, Clunbury Press, Berkhamsted, Herts. 
  • Volumes 2-6 of Generic Names of Moths of the World, Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History), London by the senior author. 
    • Volume 1 of Generic Names of the World was digitally scanned and converted to text using optical recognition software and then checked against the original by Paul Jenkins. All were then combined into a Paradox for DOS database which ultimately was converted to MS Access 97 by the senior author and subsequently MS SQL for web deployment.

Links to BHL have since been added to the catalog, expanding the information available. 54% (17,479) of the 32,188 included genus-group names have links to BHL scanned images. 64% (17,976) of the 27,891 included type species have links to BHL scanned images. 58% (2,297) of the 3,944 included type species designations have links to BHL scanned images. The catalogue bibliography includes 8,863 references, of which 3,741 (42%) have been scanned by BHL.

Graph showing the number of genus-group names of unlinked (blue) and linked (red, n=17,553 or 54.75%) citations in Butterflies and Moths of the World by decade to BHL scanned images. (Genus-group names without citations are ignored). Click graph to enlarge.

The higher classification has also been updated as far as possible to follow van Nieukerken et al., 2011 Order Lepidoptera Linnaeus, 1758. Additional genus group names have been added from:
Below is an example of how Butterflies and Moths of the World links to relevant BHL scanned pages, in order to portray a history for a given species.

An example page from Butterflies and Moths of the World - Euthalia  Hübner, 1819 . Verz. bekannt. Schmett. : 41.
Linked BHL scanned page of the original description of Euthalia  Hübner, 1819 . Verz. bekannt. Schmett. : 41.
Linked BHL scanned page of the original description of the type-species of Euthalia - Papilio lubentina Cramer, 1777. Uitl. Kapellen 2: 92, pl.155, figs C-D.

Linked BHL scanned page of the original type-species designation by Scudder, 1875. Proc. amer. acad. Arts Sci., Boston 10(2): 176.

We love hearing about all the great ways BHL users like Dr. Pitkin are adding value to their own work using BHL content. Are you using BHL in new and interesting ways? We want to hear about it! Send us feedback or write to us at

Thursday, July 18, 2013

For the Love of Cats: Harrison Weir's Extraordinary Dedication to the Cat

Harrison Weir, President of the National Cat Club, Judge at the first cat show in London, and all-around cat lover and enthusiast.

This book of the week, an 1889 work entitled, Our Cats and All About Them: Their Varieties, Habits, and Management; and for Show, The Standard of Excellence and Beauty; Described and Pictured by Harrison Weir, F.R.H.S., was written by Harrison Weir, President of the National Cat Club which he formed in 1887. What is equally delightful to Weir's loving descriptions of cats, their looks and their behavior, are his beautiful illustrations of cats throughout the book. One striking aspect of this book is the fact that Weir's descriptions of nineteenth-century feelings and issues concerning the cat are so very similar to our own. For instance, the author mentions that people often would ask him how to stop cats from scratching the furniture, or talk about what a wonderful personality their cat had (1), or how ingenioius their cats were for being able to open doors by themselves:
Take for instance, how very many cats will open a latched door by springing up and holding on with one fore-leg while with the other they press down the latch catch, and so open the door; and yet even more observant are they than I have shown by a which a cat opened a door by pulling it towards him, when he found pushing it of no avail.  The cat is more critical in noticing than the dog.  I never knew but one dog that would open a door by moving the fastening without being shown or taught how to do it.  Cats that have done so are numberless. (6-7
In addition, he points out what many today can observe in their own multi-cat homes, that cats attach themselves to certain members of the family exclusively: "I found that no two [cats] were the 'followers' of the same member of my family...Why was this?...I am sorry to say I rapidly came to the conclusion that it was jealousy!" (6).  Weir describes a picturesque scene of cat jealousy in action:
Zeno [the cat] would be very cossetty, loving, lovable, and gentle, but when Lulu [the cat] came in and was nursed he retired to a corner and seized the first opportunity of vanishing through the door.  As soon as Zillah [the cat] jumped on my knee and put her paws about my neck, Lulu looked at me, then at her, then at me, walked to the fire, sat down, looked round, got up, went to the door, cried to go out, the door was opened, and--she fled. (7
This is a scene very familiar to mulitple cat-owners today.

Cats sleeping together (90).

Weir was an early advocate for the humane treatment of animals, specifically cats, as he passionately said:
Among animals possibly the most perfect, and certainly the most domestic, is the Cat...Long ages of neglect, ill-treatment, and absolute cruelty, with little or no gentleness, kindness, or training, have made the Cat self-reliant; and from this emanates the marvellous powers of observation, the concentration of which has produced a state analogous to reasoning, not unmixed with timidity, caution, wildness, and a retaliative nature...
But should a new order of things arise, and it is nurtured, petted, cosseted, talked to, noticed, and trained, with mellowed firmness and tender gentleness, then in but a few generations much evil that bygone cruelty has stamped into its often wretched existence will disappear... (Preface v-vi) 
A peaceful cat, in what is sometimes referred to nowadays as "meatloaf position," meaning the forepaws and backpaws are completely tucked under the cat's body, the cat being rested and comfortable since it is not in a defensive stance that would allow a quick escape (5).

Weir realized that there were many cat lovers, especially in London, and so decided to hold the first cat show there at the Crystal Palace in 1871 (1-2). Weir, his brother John Jenner Weir, and the Rev. J. Macdona, were judges, and Weir said "the result [of the cat show] was a success far beyond our most sanguine expectations--so much so that I having made it a labour of love of the feline race, and acting without fee, gratuity or reward...It is to be hoped that by these shows the too often despised cat will meet with the attention and kind treatment that every dumb animal should have and ought to receive at the hands of humanity." (2-5)

Cat performing with mice (215).
Mr. Babb's Spotted Silver Tabby (133).
Mr. Clarke's "Miss Whitey" (140).

While this book is known today as the first cat pedigree book, outlining what an exemplary specimen of each breed of cat should look like and how they should behave, it is a wonderful read simply because it is filled with loving anecdotes about cats, which "are the outcome of over fifty years' careful, thoughtful, heedful observation, much research, and not unprofitable attention to the facts and fancies of others.  From a tiny child to the present, the love of Nature has been my chief delight" (Preface v).  Take for instance, his inclusion of a story about a mother cat's love for her kittens:
No animal is more fond and attentive than the cat; she is the most tender and gentle of nurses, watching closely every movement of her young...What can be more sensitively touching than the following anecdote, sent to The Animal World by C. E. N., in 1876?  It is a little poem of every-day life, full of deep feeling and feline love.
"I have a small tabby cat, very comely and graceful. Being very fond of her kitten, she is always uneasy if she loses sight of it if only for a short time.  For the last six weeks, the mother, failing to recall the truant back by her voice, even returns to the kitchen for the lower portion of a rabbit's fore-leg, which has served as a plaything for some time.  With this in her mouth, she proceeds to search for her lost one, crying all the time, and, putting it down at her feet, repeats her entreaties, to which the kitten, allured by the sight of its plaything, generally responds.  Owing to its gambols in the open air during the inclement weather, the kitten was seized with an affliction of the throat; the mother, puzzled with the prostration of its offspring, brought down the rabbit's foot to attract attention.  In vain; the kitten died.  Even now the loving mother searches for the rabbit's foot, and brings it down." (110-111)
Mother cat with kittens (109).

Weir includes many more heartwarming stories about the love and dedication of cats for their kittens and their human masters which are very enjoyable to read--in addition to a lengthy section of amusing "Cat Proverbs" (185-195), "Superstition and Witchcraft" as they relate to cats (195-199), "Weather Notions" as determined by cat behavior (200-201), and famous "Lovers of Cats" (223-227).  Among the "lovers of cats" Weir lists are the "Turks"--"Mahomet was very partial to Cats.  It is related, that being called up on some urgent Business, he preferred cutting off the Sleeve of his Robe, to waking the Cat, that lay upon it asleep" (223), Samuel Pepys (224), Petrach, Cardinal Wolsey, Sir I. Newton (227), Cowper, Gray, Cardinal Richelieu, and Montaigne (227).  You can read more about cat superstitions and folklore at our previous cat post.

With his many beautiful illustrations of different breeds of cats and kittens and his wonderful stories, this is truly Weir's own "little poem of every-day life, full of deep feeling and feline love," dedicated to the creatures which gave him such pleasure.

And now for some gratuitous photos of my own two cats, Peanut Butter and Jelly, and their fabulous and unexpected sleeping habits.  Enjoy!

Kitten kisses!  Jelly (the orange tabby on the left) and Peanut (the buff cat on the right).

Two of a Kind.

Sleepy all the time.

Written by: Laurel Byrnes, Marketing Intern at the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Special American Insect: The Magicicada septendecim

By now, you’ve probably heard the buzz about Magicicada septendecim: a type of cicada that only appears every 17 years in unimaginably large numbers.  Periodical cicadas like the Magicicada septendecim are unique to the United States, and occur in the northern midwest and eastern regions of the country.  These cicadas have an interesting physiology and reproductive system, which is explored in our book of the week taken from the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Volume 89, Number 8: Morphology of the Insect Abdomen Part II: The Genital Ducts and Ovipositor, by R. E. Snodgrass.  This unusual, 1.5-inch-long insect has a black body and large red-orange eyes, clear wings with orange veins, orange stripes on the underside of its abdomen, and an orange spot on its thorax.  It spends most of its life in one group, called a “brood,” in underground burrows one to three meters below ground.  During the 17 years they remain underground, the cicadas go through a few stages of development and feeding until the nymphs tunnel out to the surface with their brood, usually around May, as they are doing now in certain parts of the country (Gulker).   Broods contain such large numbers of cicadas that they can overwhelm their predators who can quickly become too full after eating from the wealth of available bugs, leaving enough cicadas leftover to reproduce and make the next generation brood. 

Cicada physiology. FromFontaine K, Cooley J, Simon C (2007). "Evidence for Paternal Leakage in Hybrid Periodical Cicadas (Hemiptera: Magicicada spp.)
Cicada molting its exoskeleton upon emerging from underground after 17 years.  From Wikimedia Commons.

The Magicicada septendecim’s only purpose once it emerges from its underground burrow is to reproduce (and the by-product of its emergence is that it feeds local wildlife and its carcasses nourish the soil). The nymphs will dig into the surface of nearby trees, shed their exoskeletons, and become adults ready to mate.  Males will sing together and fly around until they can convince a female to mate, and the cicadas will mate several times.  After mating, the female will use her ovipositor to inject up to 500 eggs inside of twigs, and die quickly thereafter.  Around July, both male and female cicadas will have died, and the new, tiny nymphs will burrow underground to wait another 17 years until re-emerging.  One fascinating fact about the Magicicada species is that it has a special song to indicate alarm, and when one insect begins “singing” it, others will join in.  Additionally, this insect has three courtship calls, one of which is supposed to sound as if the cicada is saying the word “Pharaoh” (see Gulker’s article, “Magicicada septendecim: Linnaeus’ 17-year cicada,” at for more information).

Our book of the week takes a more detailed look at the sound-producing and reproductive organs of these cicadas, thanks to author R. E. Snodgrass.  Snodgrass notes that “The 17-year cicada. . .has a curious and unusual development of the genital chamber, which is provided with a secondary posterior passage giving exit to the eggs directly into the channel of the ovipositor” (91).  He mentions that there has “been so much misinformation given on the subject of the abdomen of the cicada” that he would like to direct his attention to this matter (91).  What follows is an illustration of several angles of the female Magicicada septendecim abdomen.
Fig. 30.  Views of the female cicada's abdomen, including the egg-laying ovipositor, marked "Ovp" in illustration A (92).

Snodgrass describes the female abdomen in figure 30, illustration A:
At its base the abdomen is broadly but movably joined to the thorax, but the connecting parts are mostly concealed by overlapping parts of the metathorax.  When the thorax and the abdomen are somewhat pulled apart, as shown at B of the same figure, it is seen that there lies in the infolded membrane between the metatergum (T3) and the first abdominal tergum (IT) a well-developed narrow postnotal plate of the metathorax (PN3), which bears the large third phragma, and is fused ventrally with the metapleural epimera (Epm3) in the usual manner. . .The [first abdominal tergum] (IT) is a narrow, transverse plate united with the second tergum (IIT); its lateral part presents an enlarged oval area (b), which corresponds with the area of the sound-producing cymbal of the male. (91-92)
Snodgrass continues by describing the sound mechanism in the cicada’s abdomen:
The sternal plates of the first and second abdominal segments are highly modified, and they are separated by a deep inflection that forms a large ventral cavity at the base of the abdomen.  This cavity is ordinarily closed to a narrow slit between the sternal plates. . .In the male cicada the cavity is much larger than in the female and contains the so-called “resonance” membranes, or “mirrors”, which are now regarded as tympana for the reception of sound vibrations. . .The tympanal cavity can be opened and closed by movements of levation and depression of the abdomen on the lateral hinges (fig. 30 B, a) between the postnotum and the first abdominal tergum, the movements being produced by the dorsal and ventral muscles of the first abdominal segment. (92-93)
What follows are two illustrations of the female Magicicada septendecim’s reproductive organs:

Fig. 31. A more detailed look at the genital segments and ovipositor of the female cicada (96).
Fig. 32. The genital chamber of the female cicada, which has two genital openings--one for copulatory purposes, and one for expelling eggs into the ovipositor (a needle-like protrusion that injects up to 500 eggs inside nearby twigs to allow the eggs to hatch) (98-99)

The female cicada’s egg-laying ovipositor is visible in fig. 30 as “Ovp.”  Snodgrass says that “Above the seventh sternum [see fig. 30 A, VIIS] is a small vestibular cavity (fig. 32 A, Vst), in the anterior wall of which is a large genital opening (a) above a small fold (VIIIStn), which is the posterior lip of the otherwise invaginated eighth sternum.  The genital aperture may be exposed by depressing the seventh sternum, or by pulling the latter forward (fig. 31 A, a).  It leads into a large copulatory pouch (GC), which. . .is the true genital chamber” (95).

Male and Female Magicicada septendecim mating. From Fontaine K, Cooley J, Simon C (2007). "Evidence for Paternal Leakage in Hybrid Periodical Cicadas (Hemiptera: Magicicada spp.)

These tiny, intricate reproductive organs are the source of life that brings forth the overwhelmingly large numbers of cicadas we see every 17 years—sometimes in such large numbers that the cicadas will cause traffic problems and significant tree damage.  Even though the appearance of a brood might remind us of a Biblical plague of locusts, the Magicicada septendecim is an amazing insect that will sacrifice itself in large numbers just so the remaining members of the brood can reproduce and begin another 17-year cycle.

Written by: Laurel Byrnes, Marketing Intern for the Biodiversity Heritage Library

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Biodiversity Heritage Library at the American Library Association Annual Meeting 2013

2013.07.01-IMG_4606The American Library Association 2013 Annual Meeting occurred in Chicago, IL, June 27-July2. BHL hosted both a poster and a presentation as part of the conference.

ALA Poster Sessions

The BHL poster, entitled "The Power of Crowdsourcing: A Use Case from the Biodiversity Heritage Library," was showcased on June 29, 2013. Authored by Gilbert Borrego and Grace Costantino, the poster presented the work BHL has done to crowdsource species identification and tagging for the thousands of BHL Flickr images. The poster focused specifically on BHL's three Flickr tagging parties, which, as the poster demonstrates, resulted in an 53% increase in the number of images tagged during a month and an 84% increase in the number of images added to the EOL image collection for BHL.

The poster session was well attended. Martin Kalfatovic, Diana Duncan, and Suzanne Pilsk attended the poster on behalf of Gilbert and Grace and answered a number of questions about BHL and BHL's participation in Flickr.

See the poster for yourself on the BHL Pinterest!

BHL presentation at the  International Relations Round Table, American Library Association Annual Meeting

Martin Kalfatovic and Nancy Gwinn gave a BHL presentation to a group of nearly seventy librarians at the International Relations Round Table pre-conference: Innovative Library Services and Programs in Digital Era – An International Perspective.

The session generated many questions about BHL, participation, and particularly international participation. A number of good contacts were generated and goodwill created for the BHL.

View the presentation below: The Biodiversity Heritage Library. Martin R. Kalfatovic and Nancy E. Gwinn. International Relations Round Table, American Library Association Annual Meeting. Chicago, IL, 28 June 2013.


Friday, July 5, 2013

Impressions from afar: an account of our Fourth Annual Global BHL Meeting

More than a month ago, on May 27 and 28, we took the opportunity to have our Global BHL Meeting in Fez, Morocco, because some of us were on our way to ICADLA-3, the 3rd International Conference on African Digital Libraries and Archives in Ifrane later that week.  This year, it was particularly special, not only because we had a superb backstage, staying and meeting in a Dar in the old Medina, but also because at least one representative of each BHL Node (except for Brazil) managed to converge for the occasion in such a historic city and they all had something big to report from their annual achievements.

Global BHL Attendees
It was very inspiring to hear all the reports highlights and share about common global topics for our initiative: from award-winning volunteers digitizing in Australia to the dedicated colleagues generating Chinese OCR and manually tagging common names; from the laborious staff scanning a whole library in Brazil in just a few months to the quick generation of online exhibitions with BHL material in Europe; and from the development of Macaw, a specialized tool to upload selected material to our collection in a much easier way, created in the US with collaboration from Australia and Brazil, to the implementation of full-search text, annotations and underlining capabilities on the Arabic portal by Egypt - all these achievements crowned with the establishment of a continental BHL node by and for African colleagues in less than a year… for me, this is priceless!

We stayed at Dar Fes Medina
I gave a presentation for the Technical Update, explaining how having the user interface, initially developed by the BHL-Australia staff, now available on top of the BHL-US/UK functionality, is much more than a mere change of look. There’s new functionality made available by providing access to article-level information and more taxa is now found through the services of the Global Names Architecture project (supported by the National Science Foundation) to provide for a closer integration with authors lists and taxa aggregators like Zoobank and IPNI, among others.  And these are just the tips of the iceberg.  The continuous growth of the BHL corpus at a steady rate for more than 5 years, echoes the work of all those who support BHL and reflects the value of our staff contributions and the usage of our content that our users promote by creating references that link to it.  I ended my talk with a mention of the latest developments on several of our projects, like our NEH-funded Art of Life.

Newly elected gBHL Vice-Chair Jiri Frank
(BHL-E) and Dr. Jinzhou Cui (BHL-China)
But it hasn't been a year without challenges of all sorts: the end of funding for some projects, staff turnover, priority changes, and even political turmoil… During this time, our colleagues from the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole have managed to solve previous issues with the performance of our content copy on their Cluster repository.  BHL-Europe has also solved some issues it had that slowed down the process to upload files and now it's steadily ingesting content, thanks to their Organizations’ support and sometimes even personal effort and interest to maintain the project going on.  BHL-China has also found a renewed interest in providing services to other institutions through novel projects.  BHL-Australia has empowered collaborations with their volunteers’ network and BHL-Egypt has kept advancing the replication of content with firm commitment to their participation, even after major changes in the country.  Needless to explain, the challenges that BHL Africa had to overcome in order to have, in less than a year, 12 institutions from different countries eager to establish a new node and sign up the Memorandum of Understanding to participate in such effort by the time of the launch inauguration.  But changes are opportunities, and the obstacles faced only makes it even more important and valuable to recognize the wonderful contributions and achievements that have been carried out around the globe in the last 12 months by our BHL community.

gBHL Chair Nancy Gwinn and Program
Director Martin Kalfatovic (BHL-US/UK)
The Global BHL is a cooperative network of autonomous members operating programs and projects to make biodiversity literature available under principles of open access, collaboration, decentralization, interoperability, transparency and legality, and I believe it is its diversity that makes it resilient to obstacles in a particular node.  For me, this is the reason why, even in times of adversity, it has always been growing, increasing not only in size, but also developing in more regions, with more languages, topics and types of content and adapting to technology changes, improving or developing new tools and synchronizing content among nodes, even after the original project (and funding) from The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation for Global BHL Coordination ended last year.

BHL Global Coordinator  William Ulate
and Anne-Lise Fourie (BHL-Africa)
Now better and higher goals are already established. BHL-Australia and BHL-Europe want to reactivate and adapt their own projects to expand to new institutions and collections.  BHL-Africa and BHL-Brazil have the goal of starting to upload their digitized content and expand participation to other countries.  Likewise, BHL-China also wants to extend their content and services to new topics of their scientific community. BHL-Egypt is interested in integrating content with other global initiatives and exploring joint projects, while BHL-US/UK is looking to consolidate its new framework of membership and expand the services provided to their users.  Learning from each other’s successes and experiences helps us to keep working together, ensure redundancy and resilience, while at the same time increasing new unique content, tools and services that provide novel opportunities for collaborations.

gBHL Chair Ely Wallis (BHL-AU),
Dr. Magdy Nagi (BHL-Egypt) and gBHL
Secretary Nancy Gwinn (BHL-US/UK)
Every time I return from our Annual Global BHL Meeting, I come back full of positivism and ideas, proud to be part of this global initiative that involves so many amazing people collaborating from so many different places.  I have met a lot of people, but not all of them yet, I have to say; and to be fair with them, I have avoided singling out anyone here, but having the privilege, at least once a year, to share together with all the Global BHL representatives about the work their colleagues do and hear about their contributions to this worldwide endeavor, is a real treat for me...

I hope you also enjoyed it!

William Ulate R.
Global BHL Coordinator &
BHL US/UK Technical Director

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Taxidermy: The Artistry of Preserving Bodies

Thanks to reality television shows like “Oddities” on the Science Channel, “Immortalized” on AMC, and “American Stuffers” on Animal Planet, there has been a resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy.  The first instance of a dead organism being preserved and stuffed for display or learning purposes is not known with certainty, but in our book of the week, we’ll learn several theories on the origins of taxidermy—and most interestingly, how to perform it.  Montagu Browne discusses all aspects of taxidermy, and its origins, in his 1896 work, Artistic and Scientific Taxidermy and Modelling: A Manual of Instruction in the Methods of Preserving and Reproducing the Correct Form of All Natural Objects, Including a Chapter on the Modelling of Foliage:

"Little is known of the beginnings of the practice of the ‘stuffing’ or ‘setting-up’ of animals for ornament or for scientific purposes; and it is highly probable, from what we gather from old works of travel or natural history, that the art is not more than some three hundred years old.  It was practiced in England towards the end of the seventeeth century, as is proved by the Sloane collection, which in 1725 formed the nucleus of the collection of natural history now lodged in the galleries at South Kensington.

…the oldest museum specimen in existence is a rhinoceros still preserved in the Royal Museum of Vertebrates in Florence.  This was for a long time a feature of the Medicean Museum in Florence, and was originaly mounted for the museum of Ulysses Aldrovandus in Bologna.  It dates from the sixteenth century.” (3)

Browne says that the first taxidermy performed upon birds took place when, in the early sixteenth century, Holanders began commercial trade with the East Indies.  He says:
“A nobleman brought back to Amsterdam a large collection of live tropical birds and placed them in an aviary, which was heated to the proper temperature by a furnace.  It happened that the attendant one night before retiring carelessly left the door of the furnace open, thereby allowing the smoke to escape, which suffocated the birds.  The nobleman beholding the destruction of his large collection, which was the pride of the city, began to devise means for the preservation of the dead birds.  To this end the best chemists of Amsterdam were called in for consultation, and it was decided to skin the birds and fill their skins with the spices of the Indies for their preservation.  This was done, and they were then wired and mounted to represent life.” (3)

While taxidermy results in the creation of beautiful, preserved biological specimens, there is the gruesome aspect of needing to capture and kill these organisms prior to preservation (if they have not died naturally).  Browne dedicates many pages to the various means of killing different organisms, both vertebrate and invertebrate, so that their bodies remain intact and suitable for taxidermy.  These methods are not pretty, from soaking invertebrates in different mixtures of sea water, alcohol, acids and nicotine, to using cyanide of potassium and chloroform on vertebrates (60), or setting traps for them or hunting them (95).
The business of flaying an animal and preserving its skin can be complex depending on the animal’s size, and Browne quotes M. Dufresne’s account of skinning and preserving an elephant that had died at the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1803:

“The corpse of the elephant having been extended upon the ground, facilitated our taking and writing all its dimensions. . .M. Desmoulins drew the animal on one of the sides of the wall according to all these measurements, in the workshop where the model was to be constructed in its natural size.  This done, we proceeded to the skinning of the elephant, which we were only able to place upon its back by means of four-corded pulleys, fastened to the platform.  In this position we made an incision in the form of a double cross: the middle line went from the mouth to the anus, the two others were directed from each left foot to the opposite right foot; the tail and trunk were opened underneath longitudinally.  We scooped out the soles of the feet within an inch of their edge, that the nails might remain in the skin: to effect this, we were obliged to employ the chisel and mallet.  This operation was very difficult.
After four days’ labour of several persons, we separated the skin from the body: it then weighed 576 lbs; we extended it on the ground to take away the cutaneous muscles which adhered to its interior, particularly to the head” (117). 

Dufresne goes on to describe putting the skins in tubs of chemicals and boiling water, and then placing the skins over a life-size model of an elephant made of hollow wooden pieces (118).  After many days of work, the entire process was completed, and the elephant skin was rubbed with turpentine and olive oil to restore its original color after it had been made “a very ugly grey colour” from the chemicals in which it had soaked (119).

Taxidermist’s tools.  A taxidermist’s tools may seem nightmarish, but each served a valuable purpose, such as Tool No. 1, a skinning knife, and Tool No. 7, the “the eye and brain scoop or extractor—a tool which may save the beginner some trouble in preventing the bursting of a bird’s eyeballs” (20).

Despite the less pleasant aspects involved in taxidermy, it does require practitioners with real artistic talent capable of accurately sculpting a model of whichever vertebrate animal has been skinned (invertebrates require other methods of preservation).  Browne describes the process of taking plaster casts of the animal, useful for modeling small details like the palatal ridges inside the mouth of a tiger (123).  Casts of skinned animals also allow the taxidermist to create accurate under-molds upon which to arrange the flayed and preserved skin; the taxidermist will press torn pieces of paper covered in glue into the hollow, two-piece mold in layers, in order to create the under-form.  Browne describes this process:

“A half-bucketful of flour-paste was made, and some thin but tough waste-paper, used by manufacturers in the hosiery trade, was procured.  This was torn into pieces of various sizes, and taking one—pasted on one side only—sufficient for the purpose, a commencement was made at one end by laying the unpasted side downwards, and working it into the inequalities of the mould by gentle but even pressure with the fingers, the edge of the paper coming over the edge of the mould being pasted down on the flat in order to get a secure attachment.  Piece by piece the whole of the inside was covered" (132). 

After the two halves of the plaster mold were filled with glued paper, the mold hardened, and the halves were fastened together.  The animal’s skin was draped over the mold and parts like the feet were filled with clay, the tail with a rod (137), and visible muscles of the jaw with colored wax (138).  Parts of the skin (such as the exterior of padded feet) were waxed to appear natural, and artificial eyes “made of half-ovals of thin glass painted to nature from the inside” were “inserted in the orbits after the eyelids have been filled, and the cornea, etc., then made up in wax” (139).

Casting the skinned body of a tiger.

Paper under-mold of a tiger, in two halves.

Taxidermy of tigers fighting over an elephant, done in the manner described by Browne above. 

Models of animal heads, made in various different media, used to wrap the animals' skins around. 

While their methods may seem gruesome to some, taxidermists have created lasting models that represent not only lifelike specimens, but also teaching specimens that carefully show the physiological structure of different animals.  In the illustration below, a pigeon has been preserved to show the relation of its bones to its skin.

Taxidermy of a pigeon showing the relation of its bones to skin. 

Also part of the taxidermist’s artistry is his or her ability to display the specimens in settings that look like their natural habitat, and to do so in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  Browne treats this subject, and the photographs below are examples of beautifully arranged preserved specimens.

Taxidermy of several Herons.

Taxidermy of a group of penguins.

Whatever your opinions of taxidermy, it has been crucial to building the collections of many museums we know and love, and to helping our understanding of many different animal species. 

Written By: Laurel Byrnes, Marketing Intern for the Biodiversity Heritage Library