Thursday, February 26, 2015

Documenting the Flora of the Nation’s First Urban Park System

Did you know that the city of Boston is blessed with one of the largest and the oldest urban forest reservations in America?

Photo: Charles Eliot, 1897

At the turn of the 20th century, Boston saw a rapid increase in human settlement and industrialization which quickly transformed the once pristine Commonwealth into a highly developed, unsightly, and unhealthy metropolis. The movement to preserve what was left of Greater Boston's natural wonders was inspired by the writings by transcendental thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who were advocates of the idea to "keep the New World new." Local activists for the cause included Wilson Flagg, Elizur Wright, Sylvester Baxter, and Charles Eliot. They envisioned a place where the citizens of Boston could escape the "noisy ugliness" of the overcrowded city and revitalize their spirits in the requiem of nature’s untamed beauty.

A Dream Comes to Pass 

Boston’s budding conservation movement had the foresight to identify large tracts of Massachusetts wilderness for preservation in perpetuity. A four decade campaign ensued and resulted in the passage of the Acts of 1893, Chapter 407 which established the Metropolitan Park Commission. This legal entity was charged with restoring, preserving, and increasing the beauty of the undeveloped woodlands surrounding Boston and this landmark legislation would serve as a model for other American cities. The Metropolitan Park Commission’s first order of business was to hire the noted landscape architecture firm, Olmsted, Olmsted and Eliot, to survey the vegetation in the recently acquired woodland reservations, the Middlesex Fells, Beaver Brook, Stony Brook, and the Blue Hills.

Map of the original Metropolitan Park Reservations
Click here for an interactive version.

The firm appointed landscape designer Warren H. Manning who led a team of twenty volunteers to complete the fieldwork. Local botanist Walter Deane was hired to compile and edit the survey’s findings and in 1896, he published the results in this month's book of the month, Flora of the Blue Hills, Middlesex Fells, Stony Brook and Beaver Brook Reservations, of the Metropolitan Park Commission, Massachusetts. While Deane is credited with the organization of the specimens and botanical observations for publication, the project would not have been possible without collaboration among many amateur and professional botanists. This collaboration was so successful that it led to the formation of the New England Botanical Club (NEBC), which still meets regularly and has amassed a collection of 250,000 specimens housed in the Harvard University Herbaria (HUH).

Announcing a New BHL Collection

This example of an early successful citizen-science project is highlighted in the launch of a new collection in the BHL: The Archives from the Boston Metropolitan Park. This collection is composed of approximately 8,000 pages of manuscript material documenting the progress of the survey. Readers can peruse Walter Deane's field notes, diaries, datebooks, and correspondence. His diaries reveal fascinating insights into his work on compiling the Flora and the details of its publication, as well as how the formation of the NEBC resulted from the Metropolitan Flora survey. His diaries also give rich pictures of the botanists of his time and are highly useful to anyone writing about the history of the NEBC and its members. The collection is now freely available and opens up this fascinating slice of history to the public for the first time. As part of the Connecting Content project, the digitization of the archives and original specimens from the Metropolitan Park Reservation was made possible by an Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) National Leadership Grant.

Slideshow from the Archives from the 
Boston Metropolitan Park Collection

Collection Highlights

One of the most compelling aspects of the correspondence related to the Metropolitan Flora survey is learning about people and information not evident from Deane’s Flora or from the botanical specimens. One example is a letter from the tree expert Loren Dame to Manning in which he encloses a list of trees compiled by a "non-botanist", George Perry. Perry states that "I have made it a point to crawl through the densest tangle of greenbrier and thicket… to become familiar with every rod of the section." As a result of his efforts, his list of trees is very thorough. He also found some very rare plants not seen by other surveyors, including maidenhair fern. Unfortunately, because he wasn't considered a reliable source, his data wasn't included. In another letter to Manning, Dame reported three rare tree species found only in an area adjacent to the Fells, which was added to the reservation after Flora was published. All of these omissions are significant, and the knowledge revealed in these letters is highly valuable for understanding the full extent of the past flora of the area.

Surveying the Flora of Middlesex Fells: Yesterday and Today
Between 2003 and 2011 a new survey  very much like the original survey of the Fells flora was undertaken by a team of NEBC and HUH botanists. Using Deane's Flora as a basis for comparison, the team found that most of the native species from the original survey persist, despite substantial increases in the number and frequency of non-native plants. These native species face several threats, including habitat disturbance, and loss due to construction and recreational use of the Fells, herbivory from increases in deer and insect populations, as well as environmental changes effected by climate change and afforestation. Sustaining populations of native species, some of which are rare and endangered, will require a more active management of the Fells.1

Urban forests purify the air that we breathe, provide a habitat for local flora and fauna, help reduce energy demands, provide recreational opportunities, reduce stress and crime rates—the list goes on. Since eighty percent of us live in urban areas most of us owe quite a bit of thanks to the astute conservationists who fought to keep the untamed wilderness close by. Now it's our turn to preserve their legacy.

Spot Pond named by Governor John Winthrop in 1631.

Photo by Mike Ryan, Friends of the Fells
"Something like five miles northerly from Boston lies a great tract of country, all stony hills and table-lands, almost uninhabited, and of wonderful picturesqueness, and wild rugged beauty… and at its heart is that most beautiful of Boston’s suburban lakes, Spot Pond, which lies high up among the hills.” Sylvester Baxter, 1886


1 2012. Hamlin, Bryan T., W. T. Kittredge, D. P. Lubin & E. B. Wright. Changes in the vascular flora of the Middlesex Fells Reservation, Middlesex County, Massachesetts, from 1895 to 2011. Rhodora 114(959): 229-308.

Learn More!

IMLS Grant Project Page
Walter Deane (1848-1930) Papers
NPS: Metropolitan Parks Commision
Friends of the Fells
Found in the Fells
The Middlesex Fells, a Flourishing Urban Forest by W. Kittredge
BHL Collection: Archives and Specimens from the Boston Metropolitan Park Flora 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Just a Click Away: BHL Promotes Biodiversity Research and Taxonomy

The Biodiversity Heritage Library is dedicated to providing open access to the biodiversity resources in its collection. Open access not only ensures that users the world over can freely locate the information they need online, but it also enables other biodiversity initiatives to make use of the wealth of knowledge represented in our 45 million+ pages to support research and taxonomy. We’ve highlighted several projects over the past few months that have incorporated BHL content into their own databases, including ITIS, AGRIS, Avibase, and JournalMap through BioStor.

Dr. Andreas Kroh (NHM Vienna) on field work in the Azores.

Dr. Andreas Kroh, Researcher and Publisher in the Department of Geology and Paleontology at the Natural History Museum Vienna, recently shared two more examples of BHL data reuse: WoRMS, the World Register of Marine Species, and FreshGEN, a FWF-funded research project to elucidate the evolution of European Lake systems by studying their gastropod faunas.

Dr. Kroh has been studying evolution, systematics, taxonomy (particularly of fossil and extant Echinoids (Sea urchins)), and biogeography (focusing on European Neogene faunas) for sixteen years. Several years ago, he discovered BHL.

“I was searching for a specific volume of an old journal that was missing in our library, and I was excited when I found that the BHL site did provide full access to the content of that volume, saving me the time to travel more than 200 km to the next library that held the series,” recalls Dr. Kroh.

Since then, Dr. Kroh has used BHL extensively to inform his research and support his contributions to several biodiversity projects.

“BHL is an excellent research tool that has considerably sped up my work and those of many other scientists that rely on or need to refer to previously published data,” lauds Dr. Kroh. “Many of the projects I am involved in, namely my contribution to WoRMS and FreshGEN, would need much more time and effort without BHL, where many research papers are just a click of a finger away. This view is shared by many fellow editors of the WoRMS database, most of which make heavy use of BHL for rapid access to species descriptions and historical biodiversity data.”

Creation of Global Species Databases (see for an overview) involves tremendous amounts of library work - BHL has considerably sped up the process.

The World Register of Marine Species (WoRMS) aims to “provide an authoritative and comprehensive list of names of marine organisms, including information on synonymy.” serves as the web interface for the Flanders Marine Institute-developed “Aphia” database, which consolidates marine species registers from several projects. Information available through WoRMS, which is curated and maintained by taxonomic experts, includes valid species names, synonyms and vernacular names, higher classifications presenting scientific names within parent taxon contexts, biogeographical data, references to related external databases, and links to literature in BHL.

“In the World Register of Marine Species we are linking references on species pages directly to their respective title page in BHL, thereby making it easier for non-taxonomists to go back to the original sources of data, be it original descriptions, distribution data or other relevant information,” explains Dr. Kroh.

Species pages in the World Register of Marine Species ( crosslink to BHL to ease access to the (often hidden) original species descriptions and additional published information.

Dr. Kroh’s other current research focus, the FreshGEN project, will “provide the first detailed assessment of the composition of European freshwater gastropods during the Neogene and Quaternary at species, genus and family levels, with emphasis on lake faunas.” By compiling and evaluating data, particularly relevant historic literature references like those at BHL, the project’s international expert team of paleontologists and limnologists will create the FreshGEN-database (Freshwater Gastropods of the European Neogene), which will allow researchers to compare diversity and inter-lake data, identify geographic gradients in species richness, define biodiversity hotspots in present and past lake systems, shed light on the origin of modern lake faunas, and “estimate the (future) anthropogenic impact on Holocene lake faunas.”

Dr. Kroh (and, he emphasizes, his colleagues) use BHL on almost a daily basis when working on these and similar taxonomic projects. For Dr. Kroh, that use is multi-faceted.

“When locating a title in BHL I mostly read the respective portion of paper that I am interested in online. Usually, however, I do also save the link to the respective title page in my literature database and download the whole volume as PDF for future reference – this has proven very useful for field work or research in museum collections which often are in the basements where web-access is not available.”

As with all of our users, Dr. Kroh has favourite services in BHL and functionality he would like to see improved.

“One of the most useful features of BHL is that it has a drop-down interface to jump to other volumes within a journal – other portals that offer scanned books often lack such a connection between volumes of a series and it can be difficult to find a particular volume, specifically if it is a journal that has many different series and changing titles.”

On the improvement side, Dr. Kroh identified missing volumes within journals runs, multiple listings of the same titles with disconnected volumes, and the compression used for whole-volume PDF downloads as areas for BHL to focus on.

BHL is actively working to identify and fill gaps in its collections (this is, in fact, a priority within our digitization efforts), and users are encouraged to notify us of missing volumes in serial runs. And while our systems try to automatically de-duplicate multiple records of the same title, varying cataloguing practices at our member institutions, who each submit their version of a title record for the volumes they scan, impedes perfect title merging. These merges are currently a manual process, and we again encourage our users to notify us of titles in need of this extra love. File size and storage limitations unfortunately necessitate PDF compression, but high resolution images can be downloaded through Internet Archive (linked from BHL) as an alternative.

Dr. Andreas Kroh (NHM Vienna) on a field course on reef organisms, showing a sea cucumber to students.

While improvements are always possible and necessary, access to the historic biodiversity knowledge provided through BHL is critical to modern scientific work.

“It’s really the sum of observations, present ones as well as past ones, that form our knowledge of nature,” emphasizes Dr. Kroh. “In alpha-level taxonomy errors have been perpetuated in the past since few researchers had the possibility or time to go back to the original species descriptions. With BHL everybody has that possibility, regardless of her or his profession or place of living. BHL opens up scientific literature for the widest audience possible and repatriates scientific knowledge.”

We extend a special thanks to Dr. Andreas Kroh for sharing his experiences with BHL for our blog. Do you use BHL to support your work? Want to tell us about it? Send us a message at

Monday, February 16, 2015

White House Biodiversity: Presidential Pets

Celebrating President's Day with a Look at Presidential Pets

It's President's Day (recognized as Washington's Birthday - the event for which this holiday was originally established - on the federal calendar) in the United States. We decided to commemorate the day with a look at the varied and sometimes remarkable biodiversity that has graced the White House since our first president in 1789. There are of course the usual suspects - dogs, cats and birds - and some not as readily available in your local pet store, including tigers, elephants, and pygmy hippos!

The Usual Fare: Dogs, Cats, and Birds

Some of most popular Presidential dog breeds are Terriers!
By far the most popular type of animal owned by presidents over the years is the dog. Thirty-one of our forty-four presidents owned dogs, breeds of which include Terriers, Labradors, Spaniels, Irish Setters, Collies, Eskimo Dogs, and less-usual breeds like Weimaraners, Mastiffs, Wolfhounds, and Airedales. President Obama's dogs, Sunny and Bo, both Portuguese Water Dogs, are the current pets-in-residence at the White House.

Significantly less popular among presidential pets are cats (to the chagrin of many a librarian!); only twelve of our Presidents owned them. These cat lovers included Lincoln, Hayes, Theodore Roosevelt, Coolidge, Kennedy, Ford, Carter, Clinton, and George W. Bush. President Hayes, who held office 1877-1881, owned the first Siamese kitten to reach America.

Not all of our presidents preferred four-legged companions. Feathery friends are also popular in Office - more popular, in fact, than cats! Nineteen of our past presidents have owned birds. Some presidents even owned exotic varieties, including a Hyacinth Macaw and Barn Owl (Theodore Roosevelt) and a Bald Eagle (Buchanan). Farmyard-associated Aves have also seen White House time, including a turkey during Lincoln's tenure and roosters during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency.

It's an Equestrian Thing

Up until early 1900s, horses were common Presidential Pets.
It should not surprise you that a popular presidential pet was the horse. Up until the early 1900s, when the automobile became king, it was commonplace for influential citizens to own horses. Though President Washington owned many horses, his successor, John Adams, actually built the first White House stables. The most recent president to own a horse was John F. Kennedy, whose daughter Caroline's pony, Macaroni, roamed freely around the White House grounds and was something of an American celebrity. Kennedy's wife, Jacqueline, also owned a horse named Sardar.

Other Barnyard Friends

The horse isn't the only species commonly found on a farm that, at times, has also been a resident at the White House. Many presidents owned cattle, including William Henry Harrison, who kept a Durham variety at the White House, and Rutherford Hayes, who owned pedigreed Jersey Cows. While Taft was the last president to keep a cow at the White House (his cow Pauline provided him with milk during his 1909-1913 presidency), George W. Bush owns a female longhorn named Ofelia, which they keep at the family ranch in Texas. Goats were also popular among Presidents, with both Harrisons, Lincoln, and Hayes claiming them at pets. And let us not forget the Democratic-icon, the donkey! President Coolidge had one named Ebenezer during his 1923-1929 tenure.

Bigger Doesn't Mean Better

Andrew Johnson left flour on his doorstep to feed mice during his impeachment.
Some Presidents preferred much smaller pets. For example, Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt had raccoons, while Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson owned hamsters. Theodore Roosevelt was also one of only three presidents to own reptiles as pets: he owned snakes and a lizard named Bill. Our favorite small pet story, however, is associated with Andrew Johnson, who left flour on his doorstep at night to feed the local mice population during his impeachment.

A Walk on the Wild Side

Alligator 1 of 3 reptiles species owned by presidents
Though it has been over 80 year since anything more exotic than a lovebird called the White House home, some of our former presidents certainly had a flare for the unusual when it came to pets. For example, John Quincy Adams and Herbert Hoover owned the only other reptile pets claimed by presidents - Alligators! Adams' was given to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, and Hoover's son owned a pair that occasionally wandered around the White House lawn.

Not impressed by an alligator? Well, Martin van Buren received a pair of tiger cubs from the Sultan of Oman. Congress strongly requested the animals be given to the local zoo.

And if you think your pet eats a lot, consider owning something that eats up to 660 pounds of food a day! James Buchanan received a herd of elephants from the King of Siam (he wisely donated them to the zoo).

However, when it comes to the extreme in pet-owning, Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt take the cake. Among his dogs, cats, birds, donkey, and raccoon, Calvin Coolidge also owned a bobcat, lion cubs, a wallaby, a bear, and even a pygmy hippo! Theodore Roosevelt, whom we featured not long ago in regards to his outspoken love for nature, owned not only the typical dogs, cats, birds, and even horses, but also a badger, lion, hyena, wildcat, coyote, bear, and zebra.

During President Coolidge's tenure, the White House featured what amounted to a zoo, complete with wallabies!

Outcasts from the Pet Bandwagon

Think every president owned a pet? Think again! James K. Polk (1845-49) left no record of ever owning any pets.

Our Presidents have certainly owned some remarkable species throughout the years. Check out illustrations of the presidential varieties in our BHL Flickr

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

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager | Biodiversity Heritage Library

Friday, February 13, 2015

True Detective: Frederick W. True’s lifelong dedication to uncovering the natural history of marine mammals

This post is a guest post by John Ososky and Nick Pyenson, originally published on the Pyenson Lab blog.

The Smithsonian Field Book Project is showcasing Frederick William True in February! This post is follows in a series of blogs and social media content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Pyenson Lab, Smithsonian Transcription Center, Smithsonian Archives, and Smithsonian Libraries celebrating #FWTrueLove. Click on these links to the first and second posts; the third one, below, is based on a seminar recently presented by John Ososky (OsteoPrep Lab, Department of Vertebrate Zoology, NMNH) and co-written with N. D. Pyenson.

Frederick William True. c. 1880s. Smithsonian Institution Archive. Negative Number 2002-32245.

In 1858, the inland port of Middletown, Connecticut, was the largest manufacturer of marine hardware in the United States, at a time when the shipping industry shifted from sails to steam. Frederick W. True was born that year, and unsurprisingly developed a lifelong interest in ships and fisheries, especially as he witnessed the decline of the Yankee whaling industry. After earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1878, he took a job as clerk with the U.S. Fish Commission, which at the time was headed by the Smithsonian’s second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird.

Spencer Fullerton Baird. Smithsonian Archives - History Div, 46853/oval or 2004-60740.

While Secretary of the Smithsonian, Baird also decided to serve as the first Commissioner of the U.S. Fish Commission (a precursor to NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service). Under Baird’s guidance, the Commission became a robust scientific enterprise, undertaking extensive surveys of fisheries along all U.S. coastlines, censuses of fishery laborers, and also collecting data on target species and fisheries infrastructure. Baird was strategic about his influence, and he used the expansion of the Commission as an opportunity to hire promising young naturalists — such as True — and get their foot in the door at the Smithsonian.

Recruited by Baird, True was initially a special agent for the U.S. Fish Commission, but eventually Baird put him in charge of the joint Smithsonian-U.S. Fish Commission display at the Berlin Fisheries Exhibition of 1880, where many of the specimens collected by special agents for the Commission were put on display. At the time, the Smithsonian lacked an official library (for various historical reasons), and Baird rectified this situation in 1881 by donating his own personal library to form the core of a new research library at the Smithsonian. Baird recognized True’s diligence and acumen as a reseacher, and hired him to lead it. True seized on the opportunity, and improved on the idea immediately, forming divisional libraries to meet the specialized needs of individual curators, which still continue to this day (such as the Kellogg Library of marine mammalogy, named in honor of Remington Kellogg, who never met True but succeeded him as a Smithsonian marine mammalogist).

Remington Kellogg. Smithsonian Institution Archives. Image Number 78-3701.

True sometimes diverged from his role as a librarian to fill a void as acting curator of mammals; Baird, who noted True’s ambition and drive, soon appointed him curator of mammals in 1883. While microscopic descriptions were the rage in natural history at the time, True’s poor eyesight made this type of work difficult. True instead recognized the wealth of marine mammals specimens at the Smithsonian that had been generated in part by Baird’s collections from the Commission, as well as collections made by Captain Charles M. Scammon in the North Pacific Ocean in the 1870s and the prolific Edward Drinker Cope, who had been hired by Baird to write a monograph on cetaceans, which only came to partial fruition. Thus, True had the opportunity and motivation to expand his interest in marine fisheries and take on the study of cetaceans.

At the same time, True recognized the need to expand and grow the collections for the U.S. National Museum (USNM, the forerunner of what today is called the National Museum of Natural History, or NMNH). In a shrewd and practical move, True encouraged keepers of lighthouses and life-saving stations along the U.S. coasts to collect stranded specimens and data on marine mammals. True’s 1884 guide on the topic effectively presaged the logic of the modern marine mammal stranding network, which only formally took effect with the U.S. Marine Mammal Act of 1972.

Suggestions to the keepers of the U.S. life-saving stations, light-houses, and light-ships; and to other observers, relative to the best means of collecting and preserving specimens of whales and porpoises. True, F.W.  (1884).

True capitalized on Baird’s support by expanding collecting efforts, both opportunistically as part of industries and fisheries, and with more dedicated expeditions with specific curators at USNM. For example, the Smithsonian’s involvement with the Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Alaska in 1865 brought William H. Dall, a paleontologist who later would work for both the U.S. Geological Survey and the Smithsonian, into the collaborative fold. As a tribute to Dall’s impact, True named Dall’s porpoise, Phocaena dalli (now Phocoenoides dalli) in 1885 based on a description, drawings and specimen collected by Dall in Alaska. Unfortunately, this specimen was initially shipped to the Army Medical Museum by mistake, where rats chewed up the postcranial elements. (The skull is now all that is now left of the holotype specimen).

Dall's porpoise (Phocoenoides dalli). Proceedings of the United States National Museum. v. 8 (1885).

In 1895, the U.S. Fish Commission called True back into service for a study on the Northern fur seal industry in the Pribilof Islands, off Alaska. The Commission, lacking confidence in the local Russian naturalist’s conclusion about sustainable yield of fur seal skins from the islands’ rookeries, launched their own investigations. True, as he would in other field expeditions, brought along his father-in-law, D. W. Prentiss, as well as one of his chief preparators, William H. Palmer, who collected specimens while there. (Palmer would also later collect Miocene fossil marine mammals for True in Calvert County, Maryland). En route to the Pribilofs, the team dropped off another Smithsonian curator, Leonhard Stejneger, at the Commander Islands, near the Kamchatka Peninsula of modern-day Russia. Stejneger, who slightly preceded True, collected many marine mammals as well, including a beaked whale specimen that True named for him, Mesoplodon stejnegeri. True’s report on their work at the Pribilofs offered novel conservation strategies for the population, although he viewed a ban on pelagic sealing as the only effective strategy.

In 1899, True travelled to Newfoundland where a shore based whaling operation had been started by the Cabot Whaling Company at Snooks Arm in Notre Dame Bay. True joined the crew on the steam powered ships as they harpooned and returned to the station fin whales, as well as a smaller number of humpbacks. True observed and photographed the whaling operation, but also participated in crew activities, even including manning the harpoon on a successful fin whale hunt. As whales were flensed and processed, True availed himself of an opportunity to study the whale’s anatomy, especially at a second station that was opened at Balaena Station in Hermitage Bay, Newfoundland, in 1901. There, the primary target species were blue whales, which were too fast and too large for earlier fisheries to tackle. This operation offered an exciting new opportunity to study them, and generated important collections for the USNM, including a full plaster cast of one individual for the St. Louis Exposition of 1903.

Remington Kellogg and Leonhard Stejneger with the 1903 blue, or sulphur-bottom, whale, on exhibit in the Natural History Museum, c. 1930s. Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives.

True’s ultimate contributions to marine mammal science were three profound monographs on Cetaceans. Grace Costantino provided a nice summary of his 1899 monograph on oceanic dolphins (A Review of the Family Delphinidae) at BHL’s blog last week. True’s lengthy Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic in 1904 marked the first affirmative answer to whether baleen whales on opposite sides of the Atlantic constituted the same species and populations. To arrive at that conclusion, True provided the first extensive review of the validity of earlier descriptions of American whales by Scammon and Cope, an effort which relied on his own travels to other museum collections, and the rapidly growing one at his home institution (USNM). His 1910 work on beaked whales (An Account of the Beaked Whales of the Family Ziphiidae) similarly cleared up a mess of older taxonomic names for this enigmatic group of toothed whales, which have been a special strength of the Smithsonian since the time of Baird. In the past 100 years, many beaked whale species have been named after Smithsonian curators and other research associates, including: Baird’s beaked whale (Berardius bairdii), Stejneger’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri), True’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus) and Perrin’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon perrini by emeritus curator of marine mammals James G. Mead). For his own contributions, True’s name is bestowed on the common names of two rodent species that he described and published on from Asia.

Head of True's Beaked Whale (Mesoplodon mirus). Proceedings of the United States National Museum. v. 45 (1913).

In True’s entry for the Dictionary of American Biography, Alexander Wetmore (an ornithologist, Smithsonian curator, and the sixth Secretary of the Smithsonian) reflected that True was “profound as a student, and exact and punctilious as an administrative officer,” traits that no doubt served him well in his major capacities at USNM. By 1897, True was appointed head curator of the Department of Biology, with broad administrative direction over all biological work at USNM, and served as acting secretary of the entire institution for a short period of time that year. When the natural history collections of USNM moved across the National Mall to the newly built natural history building in 1910 (today, the main museum for NMNH), True became assistant secretary of the Smithsonian in charge of the library and of the international exchange service, a position that he occupied until his death in 1914.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Happy Darwin Day!

Charles Darwin by George Richmond. Cambridge University Library.
Today in 1809, Charles Darwin, remembered for his theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection (which was so eloquently outlined in the 1859 publication On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection) was born. We celebrate this day as Darwin Day.

In 2011, BHL released Charles Darwin's Library, a collection of books found in Charles Darwin's personal library, with his hand-written annotations marked-up and indexed. We made a selection of these books available for free download in iTunes U. This year, we've selected images from these books and created a Darwin collection in Flickr. As with all BHL content, these images are free for download and reuse.

As we continue our celebrations of this great man of science, we highlight another project (headquartered at the American Museum of Natural History) which is dedicated to providing free access to Charles Darwin's scientific manuscripts - the Darwin Manuscripts Project.

In this two-part post, Darwin Manuscripts Project Director, David Kohn, examines four of Darwin's manuscripts that show the development of his evolution theory. Let's begin with excerpts from "Ornithology Notes" and Darwin's "Transmutation Notebook."

Celebrating Darwin Day. By David Kohn. Director, Darwin Manuscripts Project

The Darwin Manuscripts Project has the admittedly ambitious goal of publishing all of Darwin’s scientific manuscripts. When digitized this will come to well over 100,000 high-resolution images, which we aim to faithfully transcribe and edit to the exacting standards of contemporary textual and historical scholarship. Among all these manuscripts my first love has always been those items that reveal—or at least allow us to glimpse at—the development of Darwin’s commitment to transmutation (his term for evolution) and the insights that led him to natural selection and eventually to the Origin of Species. Beyond their intellectual content, what appeals to me is how passionate are these manuscript glimpses of Darwin deeply in the midst of theory creation. So I’ve selected three items that capture chronological high points in what must be the most crucial intellectual journey in the history of natural history. And then I’ve selected two manuscript pages from the end point of the journey—the Origin itself. The entirety of this  journey can easily be followed on the DMP site by going to Edited Manuscripts (in the left-hand navigation) and then selecting ‘Creation of the Origin’, where the reader will find all the many surviving documents that are relevant to this process from 1835 to 1859. 

Ornithology Notes, Summer 1836 

(Cambridge University Library, DAR 29.2: 73-74)

Ornithology Notes. Pg. 73. Cambridge University Library.
Ornithology Notes. Pg. 74. Cambridge University Library.
I want to focus on the following passage about the slightly different forms of mocking birds Darwin found as he travelled from island to island. This was written in the summer of 1836 and is a significantly revised version of notes written in 1835, shortly after the Beagle left the Galapagos. 

"When I see these Islands…tenanted by these [mocking] birds…I must suspect they are only varieties. … If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the Zoology of Archipelagoes, will be well worth examining; for such facts «would» undermine the stability of Species."

What a tantalizing passage. What does he mean by the concluding remark: ‘undermine the stability of Species’?

Undoubtedly, this remains one of the most controversial passages in the Darwin manuscript corpus. And I am offering a part of my humble, yet accurate, interpretation. By ‘stability’ Darwin means immutability. For stability of species is the exact term that Charles Lyell used when he discussed Lamarck’s evolutionary theory at length in the Principles of Geology. By 1836, Darwin had almost four years to read Lyell. And we know definitively he had read and indeed thought about Lyell’s anti-evolutionary views by February 1835. While there are several ways that Darwin was exposed to evolution before the voyage, Lyell’s deep exposition of Lamarck was, I believe, the most important exposure. For reading Lyell gave Darwin a major and thorough injection of evolution theory at the very time when Darwin was actively collecting specimens. But this belief has to be a matter of guess work because Darwin did not begin annotating his books until after the Beagle voyage. (If you really want to have some fun browse through the heavy marginalia on Darwin’s immediately post-Beagle copy of the 1837 edition of Lyell’s Principles in the Charles Darwin’s Library collection at BHL: and

So to me ‘undermine the Stability of species’ translates as to ‘negate immutability’. Logically, to negate immutability equates to assert evolution. But in this passage Darwin did not assert evolution—not yet. We learn that the logic of discovery can proceed more gradually than mere logic.  However, this passage is an extremely important index of Darwin’s intellectual development. For while it shows that Darwin was not yet an evolutionist, it also shows that he was thinking about evolution and indeed thinking that evidence he had collected could destroy the received view that species are perpetually immutable.

Some more context is necessary.  When he wrote this passage, Darwin was in the midst of an important transition. South America and the years of specimen collecting were long behind him. So as a scientific expedition, the voyage itself was behind him. Yet with the ship homeward bound in the Atlantic, the voyage had not yet ended. But Darwin is already looking to the near future, when he would make a powerful entrance into London’s scientific scene by delivering his Beagle specimens to specialists to identify, describe, and evaluate. For these are the people who will determine whether or not his evidence on the ‘Zoology of Archipelagoes, will be well worth examining’. But now, while still sailing, Darwin was prepared to speculate, and indeed to set the grounds for his future evolutionary theorizing.

Transmutation Notebook D 134e-D135e, 28 September 1838 

(Cambridge University Library, DAR 208: 73-74, and  For the whole Notebook D see

Transmutation Notebook D. Pg. 134e. Cambridge University Library.
Transmutation Notebook D. Pg. 135e. Cambridge University Library.

28th. «I do not doubt, every one till he thinks deeply has assumed that increase of animals exactly proportiona[l] to the number that can live.—» We ought to be far from wondering of changes in number of species, from small changes in nature of locality. Even the energetic language of ‹Malthus› «Decandoelle» does not convey the warring of the species as inference from Malthus.— … population in increase at geometrical ratio in FAR SHORTER time than 25 years— yet until the one sentence of Malthus no one clearly perceived the great check amongst men.— … One may say there is a force like a hundred thousand wedges trying force ‹into› every kind of adapted structure into the gaps ‹of› in the œconomy of Nature, or rather forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones. «The final cause of all this wedgings, must be to sort out proper structure & adapt it to change.—»

These two pages from the third of Darwin’s ‘Notebooks on the Transmutation of Species’ give us a window into another crucial moment, for here we see Darwin’s profound excitement as he responds to reading Malthus’ Essay On Population. Visually, I have always been struck by Darwin’s uncharacteristically small, yet very well formed, handwriting here. And notice how there seems to be at least two layers of writing. Indeed the pages are so densely packed that in some places scholars have difficulty cleanly separating the layers. 

But, what is Darwin saying?  Well, you need to know that by September 1838, Darwin was deeply engaged in what became the two branches of his life’s work. One branch was the constant weighing of the evidence for and against evolution, though by March 1837—so about six months after the Ornithology Notes, he was convinced that the mutability of species was the way nature is organized—evolution is a correct theory. The other branch was Darwin’s search to define mechanisms that explain two things: how species acquire adaptations and how new species are formed.  In these two pages Darwin is, for the very first time,  beginning to formulate the essence of the mechanism for adaptive evolution, namely: by natural selection. No wonder he writes with so much energy, and yet with so much precision. What he does here is grasp the power of Malthus’ population pressure—‘the energetic language of Malthus,’ which he then harnesses as a natural agent that through the differential survival of the fittest—‘forming gaps by thrusting out weaker ones’ can thereby ‘sort out proper structure & adapt it to change’. This is the essence of natural selection. Not the  grown tree in full bloom. But it is more than just a seed, for if theories are like trees, at this stage Darwin’s was a healthy sapling.

(To Be Continued...View part 2 of this blog post.)

Images in this post reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.


Explore Darwin on BHL and the Darwin Manuscripts Project:

Charles Darwin's Library
Charles Darwin's Library on iTunes U
Charles Darwin's Library on Flickr
Darwin Manuscripts Project
Official Darwin Day Website

Voilà! Evolution by Means of Natural Selection

Exploring Darwin's Journey Towards the Theory of Evolution, 

Part 2 (View Part 1)

In our previous post, David Kohn, Director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, discussed two Darwin manuscripts illustrating the development of his theory of evolution: excerpts from "Ornithology Notes" and his "Transmutation Notebook D."

In this installment, we explore two additional manuscript excerpts: "Principles of Divergence" and Darwin's "Origin Manuscripts."

Celebrating Darwin Day. By David Kohn. Director, Darwin Manuscripts Project, Part 2

Principle of Divergence. Natural Selection Portfolios II 

(Cambridge University Library, DAR 205.5: 148 For the whole of DAR 205, Darwin’s divergence portfolio, see

Principles of Divergence Portfolio. Pg. 148. Cambridge University Library.

Darwin finished his last notebook in 1839 and waited until 1842 to write a first short essay and until 1844 to write a much longer essay. Then it isn’t until 1854 that he returned in earnest to work on what became the Origin, published in 1859. There are many reasons for all these obvious intervals and gaps. But let’s focus on one big reason, namely: as a comprehensive explication of evolution, the theory even in 1844 was incomplete. For all that Darwin had fully worked out natural selection—which explains the origin of adaption—between 1838 and 1842, yet we can see in retrospect that natural selection wasn’t sufficient to explain how new species are formed. Nor did natural selection explain the principle behind the irregularly branched tree of life that Darwin first drew back in 1837.  According to his autobiography, this big intellectual gap did not dawn on Darwin until the 1850s.

I overlooked one problem of great importance; and it is astonishing to me, except on the principle of Columbus and his egg, how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This problem is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under sub-orders, and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.  (Autobiography 120-121)  

What intrigues me about this explanation of how the principle of divergence originated is Darwin’s memory of ‘the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me’.  Did this really happen? Did he have a eureka moment riding in his carriage? For good reason, historians don’t like to trust autobiographical accounts. Darwin’s memory has been proven inaccurate more than once. And yet, let me rush in where wiser scholars may fail/fear to rush. In Darwin’s Natural Selection Portfolios II, there is a series of 15 loose notes, all related to divergence, all dated October to November 1854, and all written on identical grey paper. But one of these notes is written in pencil rather than ink. Unlike any of the other notes in the 1854 series, Darwin’s hand writing here is exceedingly ‘jumpy’.  Could this be the manuscript record of the carriage ride? The text reads:

We include all in class, as «in» Crustacea, which are connected, but yet no definition will define, — a proceeding explicable on descent.—

I suggest that this passage parallels the bolded sentences above from the Autobiography.  What I’m proposing as the carriage-ride note is a succinct statement of the problem or challenge of divergence—how to make the apparent "connectedness" of "all in class" more than just "heraldic", but actually "explicable" on descent. The succeeding flood of grey-paper notes contain elements of Darwin's solution—that is, the principle of divergence, which probably began to come into focus for him after he stepped down from his carriage. I think in this scrap of paper, we’ve again caught Darwin in the act of being Darwin.

Surviving draft manuscript sheets of the Origin of Species

(American Philosophical Society Library, BD 25.57 and Cambridge University Library, DAR 185: 109a (6v). For the entire known collection of Origin sheets see

Origin Manuscript. Pg. 224. American Philosophical Society Library.
The first edition of the Origin is a book of 490 pages. So Darwin’s hand-written draft must have been a respectable pile of paper. Yet for all the voluminous size of the Darwin archive, only some 30 sheets of the Origin survive. Happily, my favorite passage in the book is one of the five sheets owned by the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. Here is the passage:

Natural selection tends only to make each organism as perfect «as», or slightly more perfect than, the other inhabitants of the same country, with which it has to struggle for existence. And we see that this is so in nature.

This comes from Chapter VI, entitled ‘Difficulties on Theory,’ which perhaps could be more aptly called ‘Difficulties Conquered.’ The difficulty Darwin sought to overcome here was the appearance of perfection in nature, a concept invoked in the natural theology that Darwin encountered as a student in the work of William Paley. I am drawn to this passage because here Darwin pursues a metaphysical implication of his theory. He argues, rather slyly, that natural selection undoes the prevailing view that adaptations are perfect. He does this by introducing a contradiction in terms. How can anything be ‘slightly more perfect’. Perfect should be perfect. But Darwin shows that the concept of natural selection makes perfection relative. To be adapted organisms need only be ‘slightly more perfect than, the other inhabitants of the same country.’ But that renders perfection in nature a baseless and useless idea.

Finally, let’s consider one of the reasons that so few Origin sheets have survived. This picture on the back of an Origin sheet in Cambridge University Library is one of several with drawings like this one showing a battle between soldiers, who we may call knights of the aubergine and the carrot. The artist was Darwin’s son Francis, who evidently was given access to pages from the manuscript version of the great book. Indeed the manuscript only survives because Francis used it for drawing paper. His father didn’t seem to care!

Aubergine and Carrot Cavalry. By Francis Darwin. Cambridge University Library.

Images in this post reproduced with the permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library and the American Philosophical Society Library.

We hope you've enjoyed our exploration into the insights that Darwin recorded in his manuscripts, all of which ultimately led to the publication of his theory of Evolution by means of Natural Selection. We extend a special thanks to David Kohn, Director of the Darwin Manuscripts Project, for contributing these posts, and to Cambridge University Library and the American Philosophical Society Library for the use of the manuscript images included within these posts.

Read Part 1 of this Blog Post, discussing "Ornithology Notes" and "Transmutation Notebook D."

Explore Darwin on BHL and the Darwin Manuscripts Project:

Charles Darwin's Library
Charles Darwin's Library on iTunes U
Charles Darwin's Library on Flickr
Darwin Manuscripts Project
Official Darwin Day Website

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Empowering Access to Biodiversity Information in Africa

Almost two years ago, BHL Africa officially launched during a three-day workshop hosted by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) at the Pretoria National Botanical Garden in Pretoria, South Africa. In the subsequent two years, BHLA has begun digitization at some participating institutions and has drafted a governance framework for the node. Recent developments, including a grant from the JRS Biodiversity Foundation and a new status within the global BHL community, have brought our colleagues significantly closer to achieving their vision of global access to biodiversity resources in sub-Saharan African institutions.

On January 30, 2015, the JRS Biodiversity Foundation, which is committed to enhancing the understanding of biological diversity for the benefit and sustainability of life on earth, announced an award of $150,000 to facilitate the growth of BHL Africa. JRS’ support of BHL Africa began in 2011 with a sponsorship for African attendance at the BHL Life and Literature Conference in Chicago, IL, followed by additional support for the launch ceremony and corresponding workshop in April, 2013.

Group photo at the BHL Africa launch ceremony. Pretoria, South Africa. April, 2013.

Awarded to SANBI, this new grant will grow BHLA through assessment, collaboration, and digitization, resulting in a wealth of collections unique to African institutions being added to BHL. This new JRS support will allow BHLA to:

  • Conduct outreach to expand active BHLA participation through engagement with current members and recruitment of new participants 
  • Improve communications and host workshops and trainings for 13 BHLA member institutions 
  • Analyze the existing capacity for participation and content aggregation 
  • Stabilize the governance of the organization and infrastructure through sustainability planning 

In order to accomplish these objectives, Anne-Lise Fourie, Assistant Director of SANBI Libraries, Chair of BHLA and PI on the JRS Africa project, plans to survey current members and potential partners and conduct site visits to Kenya and Uganda to establish capacities and collection profiles. This information will help inform future trainings regarding identification of unique content for inclusion in BHL and the selection of digitization service providers.

Learn more about the project, planned outputs, and project staff on the BHL Africa web page on the JRS website.

We are also pleased to announce that BHL Africa has joined BHL as an Affiliate, following the example of BHL Singapore and BHL Mexico, which participate in BHL both as autonomous regional nodes and Members of the BHL. As an Affiliate, BHLA may participate in BHL committees, task forces, and working groups and will collaborate more extensively within the global BHL community. See a list of current BHL Members and Affiliates here.

We are thrilled at BHL Africa’s progress and look forward to witnessing the continued growth of the project.

Contributions from BHL Africa

Important Birds Areas in Kenya. Contributed by Nature Kenya, East Africa Natural History Society for BHL Africa.

Current BHL Africa partner contributions to the BHL Collection include:

Planned BHL outage 2/12/15 at 6pm CST

There will be a planned outage of the BHL website for site maintenance starting Thursday 2/12 at 6pm CST (12am Feb. 13 GMT) to last approximately 3 hours. The 3 hour outage is an estimate, but we will work to have services restored as quickly as possible. Thank you for your patience.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Dolphins and True Love: An Ode to Frederick W. True

The Smithsonian Field Book Project is showcasing Frederick William True in February! This post is the first in a series of blogs and social media content from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Pyenson Lab, Smithsonian Transcription Center, Smithsonian Archives, and Smithsonian Libraries celebrating #FWTrueLove. Learn more.

The Delphinidae: Cetacean Taxonomy’s “Trash Basket” 

When you think of oceanic dolphins, chances are you don’t think of trash. But if you’re a taxonomist, you might.

“The family Delphinidae has been called a 'taxonomic trash basket', because many small to medium-sized odontocetes of various forms have been lumped together in this group for centuries” (Dr. Edward Vanden Berghe, Flanders Marine Institute. WoRMS. Delphinidae).

Fig B: Commerson's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii); Fig. C: white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris); Fig. D: short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis); with the harbour porpoise (Phocoena phocoena) - Fig. A. (Listed by True as Phocaena communis within Delphinidae. Today named Phocoena phocoena in Phocoenidae family) in BHL. Norman, J.R. Field Book of Giant Fishes (1949).

Even today, multiple classifications exist, and depending on the schema used, anywhere from 30-50 species may be attributed to Delphinidae, ranging in size from 1-9.1 meters (see various taxonomies in EOL, WoRMS, Marine Mammal Science, and Animal Diversity Web). The distribution of Delphinidae species across such wide and diverse habitats and the lack of data for many members of the family impede conclusive taxonomic assertions regarding species distinctions and relationships. 

Regardless of the questions still remaining, members of the Delphinidae family share many characteristics, including numerous conical teeth, compression and fusion of the neck vertebrae, and sophisticated echolocation ability.

Short-beaked common dolphin (Delphinus delphis). Gemeinnüzzige Naturgeschichte des Thierreichs. Bd. 2 Plates (1780).

The quest to understand and organize oceanic dolphins is one that requires patience and the continual acquisition of knowledge and data. This has been the reality since scientists first attempted to classify these marine mammals, and one poignantly felt by one of the world’s foremost cetacean authorities at the turn of the century: Frederick William True.

F.W. True: Pioneering Cetologist 

Frederick W. True (1858-1914) began his career as a clerk at the U.S. Fish Commission in 1878. In 1881, he was hired by S.F. Baird as Librarian and Acting Curator of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, after which he was promoted to Head Curator of Biology in 1897 – a position he held until 1911 when he became the Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. With a focus on living and marine fossil mammals, True was the first marine mammals curator at the Smithsonian. Though he is most famous for his work on the mysticetes and beaked whales, True also provided invaluable contributions to the study of the Delphinidae family.

Frederick W. True. Image Courtesy the Smithsonian Institution Archives | Image # MAH-11716

At the turn of the century, the status of the Delphinidae family was even more confusing than it is today. The widespread distribution of the family meant that the same species might actually be found off the coasts of every continent (the common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) for example, has a worldwide range). More crucially, the lack of access to the specimens and data of scientists in different parts of the world, led to the tendency of some naturalists (such as Edward Drinker Cope) to base new species descriptions on scant data (often relying on a single, perhaps incomplete, specimen to assert a new species). Consequently, our turn of the 20th century understanding of Delphinidae was saturated with questionable, often synonymous, scientific names.

Common bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncatus). Beddard, Frank E. A Book of Whales (1900).

True recognized that scientists at the time used non-uniform criteria to describe and classify species. Some based descriptions on external characteristics, while other relied on osteological examinations, resulting in, as True put it, two series of species. Varied criteria employment also resulted in drastically different classification schemes, resulting in a plethora of competing taxonomic trees for both Delphinidae and related families.

The preponderance of oceanic dolphin scientific names and uncertainty of species relationships was a major impediment to the advancement of Delphinidae research. Near the end of the nineteenth century, True set out to bring order to the chaos.

Revising the Delphinidae 

True began his endeavor with a focus on the species found off the North American coasts, but the state of affairs compelled him to expand his scope to the entire Delphinidae family. Though his work was largely based on that of Gray, Flower, Stejneger and Baird, True was the first person to attempt to analyze all available data, harmonize the many synonyms, and produce a classified list of truly distinct Delphinidae species.

True quickly realized that “a proper comparison of the species described respectively by European and American naturalists could not be made without an examination of the types.” Thus, in the winter of 1883-84, True spent four months in the museums of England and Europe studying the type specimens of the described Delphinidae species. The result of his labor was the publication Contributions to the natural history of the cetaceans. A review of the family Delphinidae, which presented a revised Delphinidae classification.

During his time abroad, True kept a journal recording the observations, measurements and data he gathered. These records were used to inform the aforementioned publication. Dr. Nick Pyenson, current Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, recently discovered this journal amongst a box of True’s manuscripts and research materials in the Smithsonian’s Remington Kellogg Library of Marine Mammalogy.

F.W. True's Journal (1883-84). Data recorded from specimens at European and English museums. Used to inform True's Delphinidae publication.

As the journal (1883-84) shows, True carefully examined and measured all of the type specimens he could find, including specimen catalog numbers, locality, sex and age if known, various lengths including total, length of beak, and girth, and other data such as the number of teeth. These kinds of data remain relevant today, where the consistent collection and curation of this irreplaceable data provides the basis for answering many different ecological, evolutionary and conservation research questions.

F.W. True's Journal (1883-84). Data recorded from specimens at European and English museums. Used to inform True's Delphinidae publication.

Even more interesting, the logbook is annotated by Remington Kellogg, the aforementioned library’s namesake and himself an authority on cetaceans. Though his time at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History postdated True’s lifetime, Kellogg took a keen interest in True’s work and annotated many of his manuscripts, including not only this journal but also True’s fieldbook of collecting trips in 1906-08.

True. F.W. U. S. National Museum log book of collecting trips for fossil cetaceans (1906-08). Digitized by the Smithsonian Institution Archives for The Field Book Project.

The measurements and osteological examinations recorded in True’s 1883-84 journal were used to create limits of specific variation among species and inform a comparative analysis of species relationships to produce a revised taxonomic tree. The result was the harmonization of existing scientific names down to a total of 62, classified within 19 genera and 2 subfamilies within Delphinidae.

Of course, the science of taxonomy is not a static endeavor. Classifications are constantly improving and evolving as we have access to new information and specimens, discover new species, and employ new techniques (such as DNA sequencing) in our quest to better understand the world and the species in it. Indeed, even True himself acknowledged that the accuracy of classifications was dependent on the availability of data and the construction of a full biological picture. In his publication, True asserted,

“The writer is fully aware that the time is not yet ripe for a final review of the family Delphinidae. The work now accomplished must be regarded as provisional and subject to change in the future…Cetologists must be content to wait patiently until the acquisition of new specimens make a complete description possible.” 

And indeed, new information has come to light since True revised the Delphinidae family over 100 years ago. While the total number of species, genera, and subfamilies differ depending on the classification schema used, of the 62 distinct species that True recognized, 38 are recognized as distinct today (though some under different names), and 32 are still included in the Delphinidae family. Twenty-four of the species True classified as distinct are now considered representatives of other species cataloged in his publication or are not recognized as distinct species today (i.e. nomen dubium). While many of the binomials employed by True are today considered invalid synonyms (though some have changed only slightly in spelling), 15 of the names included by True are still considered valid. (Comparisons made on whole species binomial. Data based on taxon information in WoRMS collected 1/30/2015. Note: some researchers have proposed using Sagmatias for species of Lagenorhynchus today — so Sag. amblodon may get resurrected.)

Table Comparing the species names presented by True ("True's Species") with the corresponding valid species names recognized today ("Today's Species). Each unique species listed under "Today's Species" is highlighted with a distinct color, and all names employed by True in the "True's Species" column are color coded with the valid name they are recognized to represent today. The "Family" column indicates the taxonomic family to which the species identified by True are today understood to belong to. Comparisons based on taxon information in WoRMS collected on 1/30/2015.


Scientific Research in the Digital Age 

The efficiency of scientific research depends on access to raw data, specimens, and previously published information. During True’s lifetime, access to this information was especially difficult, resulting in the proliferation of competing taxonomies. Satisfying information needs often required expensive trips across oceans and countries to consult dispersed institutional collections.

Today, open access digitization initiatives are working to provide global, online access to the information required to study, describe, and classify life. The digitization of museum specimens, scientist’s raw data contained in unpublished fieldbooks, and centuries’ worth of published natural history literature allows researchers to draw connections among all of this information, see the work upon which current systems are based, compare notes across disciplines and time, and more easily harmonize synonyms and create classifications. The Biodiversity Heritage Library and The Field Book Project, through the digitization of natural history fieldbooks and publications, are two programs amidst a growing cadre of initiatives dedicated to facilitating discovery of the natural world. Through continued collaboration and a commitment to open access, we can improve the efficiency of scientific research across the globe.

For more fun, browse historic Delphinidae illustrations from BHL:

Grace Costantino
Outreach and Communication Manager | Biodiversity Heritage Library
With contributions by: Dr. Nick Pyenson | Curator of Fossil Marine Mammals, NMNH