On the diligence of biologist-collectors

This story about Darwin comes from his Life and Letters, page 50 (h/t: John Hawks), and shows what an avid entomologist he was as a youth:

I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.

Biologists who are collectors often approach a state of obsession, ignoring palpable dangers to get that one prized specimen. Here, courtesy of reader Tom C., is a tw**t from Vazrick Nazari, an evolutionary biologist and entomologist who works at The Canadian National Collection of Insects, Arachnids and Nematodes in Ottawa:

Collected in Flanders Fields! J. A. Morden, the brave collector, has been largely subsumed by the stream of history, though you can find sporadic mentions of him on the internet (e.g., here).  This specimen has outlived him, and is a testimony to his diligence, his foolhardiness, or both.

I think it would be great to gather examples of specimens with unusual labels like the one above, or those collected by well known people. Here are two examples of what I mean:

This is a dung beetle (Onthophagus australis) collected by Charles Darwin (with the label in his handwriting) in Hobart, Tasmania in 1836, on the homeward leg of the Beagle voyage. (See more about it here.)

Here’s another:

Yes, that’s Vladimir Nabokov, and cognoscenti know that besides being a writer and critic, he was deeply devoted to collecting butterflies. As Laetitia Barbier wrote at the Atlas Obscura:

Between 1942 and 1948, Nabokov was a Researcher Fellow in the Harvard University Comparative Zoology department. The university allowed him to have a little shop furnished with scientific equipment to pursue his taxonomic research. Nabokov was already a practiced expert of Blue Butterflies and focused his classification theory on one specific point: the study of male butterfly genitalia. Invisible to our bare eyes, the butterflies’ privates were described by Nabokov as “minuscule sculptural hooks, teeth, spurs, etc… visible only under a microscope.” These aedeagus would be taken away from each specimen, places in littles vials or on glass plates, and labeled. By doing so, Nabokov could observe new physiognomic differences between identical-looking butterflies and reevaluate their belonging to one species or another. Each specimen was indexed and placed in a small wooden cabinet.

Nabokov’s specimens at the Museum of Comparative Zoology are buried in the collections upstairs, but I’ve seen some of them, and Nabokov’s knowledge of Lepidoptera is a trope in Lolita.  Here he is collecting:

Wouldn’t it be great to have a book of specimens collected in unusual ways, or by unusual people? I’m sure you could put one together, along with stories like the above. This is my idea, which is mine, and I hereby trademark it as intellectual property.™


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    That’s the way to be – no matter what!

  2. Randy schenck
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

    From a different time certainly but this post reminds me of Theodore Roosevelt who many may not know, parts of his various careers. Early in life he studied biology and became a naturalist. He did not continue this direction after finishing with school but during this earlier period trained himself in taxidermy and stuffed all types of animals he killed on family excursions. Probably the most experienced and educated President we have had in this field.

    • loren russell
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:49 pm | Permalink

      Hard to quantify “experienced” [?Jefferson], but the “most educated” must be Wilson, our only presidential PhD. Unfortunately Wilson was also a virulent racist — and not through ignorance, since his field was American history.

      • Randy schenck
        Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

        Yes, well I did not mean simply school education in that sense. Life education as well and regarding the field of biology I don’t know any other president that came close to Teddy. He also lived out west like a cowboy for some time, went to war and traveled to extreme locations in South America and Africa. His mother and first wife died at the same time. He lost one son in WWI.

        If I had to pick the least formal educated President, that would be Lincoln who would also be at the top of the list of presidents.

    • David Coxill
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 9:01 am | Permalink

      Well the Snatch snatcher is making a good job of stuffing the USA at the moment.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        Taxidermists the world over shudder at the comparison.

  3. Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    This may be obscure except to Drosophila researchers. Dan Lindsley is likely known by most researchers in this field as the author of the ‘Redbook’, which is a tome that describes the various mutations and special chromosomes of Drosophila melanogaster. Anyway, as if he was not busy enough, he was also a rather obsessive collector of skipper butterflies. I got to know Dan pretty well when I was a post doc in San Diego, and he gave me a tour of his shed at his home in which he kept his collection. It was filled with beautifully currated drawers of his butteflies, and a work table where he did dissections and made drawings of the genetalia of these insects.

  4. Mark Loucks
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    I am in the midst of reading Nabokov’s PALE FIRE. It contains some of the best poetry I have ever read.

    • bric
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

      Nabokov’s Collected Poems are well worth reading, you might like this article from the NYT

  5. Mark R.
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I really enjoyed this post.

    I didn’t know that about Nobokov. I’ll have to read Lolita again with this in mind. Humbert Humbert

  6. bonetired
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    J A Morden … The Canadian Corps were near Arras in early 1918 before being transferred to Amiens for the crushing 8 August 1918 attack which marked the start of the end of WW1.

  7. Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    If you’re stuck in a trench with shells flying overhead, you need something to take your mind off your situation. At least Morden spent his time productively!

    • bric
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      That’s true, Wittgenstein wrote Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus in the other sides’ trenches

      • David Coxill
        Posted July 16, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        That might account for all the endless WW1 poetry

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      Merrill Newman, the Korean War vet briefly famous for being hauled off a plane and held prisoner in Pyongyang a few years ago, was in his youth an amateur ichthyologist, and spent much of the war studying obscure species of Korean fish (in between guerrilla raids on Communist strongholds).

    • David Coxill
      Posted July 16, 2017 at 9:11 am | Permalink

      In the closing scene of the 1930 film “All Quiet On The Western Front” the main character is seen reaching out for a Butterfly ,then he gets shot by a French sniper .
      The bit about Darwin and the Beetles reminds me that in 1978 the BBC showed a series called “The Voyage Of Charles Darwin “,it told his life story ,and it mentions him doing it .
      The actor playing Captain Fitzroy did a great job portraying him.

  8. Liz
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    The first one is beautiful.

  9. M Janello
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/science/01butterfly.html” Article about Nabokov’s theory of butterfly evolution, later vindicated by DNA analysis.


  10. M Janello
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 4:26 pm | Permalink

    oops — linkfail there

  11. Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:09 pm | Permalink

    To PCC(E): Wonderful idea! Go for it!

    To Loren Russell: Unfortunately, Woodrow Wilson is a many times distant cousin of mine of whom my great grandmother was inordinately proud.

    To Randy Schenck: I have been fascinated by the autodidact facet of Abraham Lincoln (and others) for many years and have numerous books about him. One is a collection of his stories from people who had heard them told by Lincoln. This was published shortly after he died. I have a book of photos of Lincoln. And a number of books about his political development, his “religious” beliefs, his life in Washington and the White House, his conduct of the war, how he interacted with his cabinet members and generals, etc. There’s a multi-volume set of books of his speeches that I’m considering buying.

  12. Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  13. Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    I sometimes use this poem of Nabokov’s in my lectures:

    On Discovering A Butterfly

    I found it in a legendary land
    all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
    where it was settled on some sodden sand
    hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.

    The features it combines mark it as new
    to science shape and shade — the special tinge,
    akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
    the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.

    My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
    corroded tissues could no longer hide
    that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
    and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.

    Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
    two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
    or scales like battledores of amethyst
    cross the charmed circle of the microscope.

    I found it and I named it, being versed
    in taxonomic Latin; thus became
    godfather to an insect and its first
    describer — and I want no other fame.

    Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
    and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
    in the secluded stronghold where we keep
    type specimens it will transcend its dust.

    Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss,
    poems that take a thousand years to die
    but ape the immortality of this
    red label on a little butterfly.

    • Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:52 pm | Permalink

      That was published in the May 15 1943 New Yorker magazine.

  14. Posted July 15, 2017 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    And here is a quote from A R Wallace, co-formulator of the theory of evolution and an avid a collector like Darwin (which was not a coincidence), upon catching his first birdwing butterfly:

    From The Malay Archipelago (1869):
    “The beauty and brilliancy of this insect are indescribable, and none but a naturalist can understand the intense excitement I experienced when I at length captured it. On taking it out of my net and opening the glorious wings, my heart began to beat violently, the blood rushed to my head, and I felt much more like fainting than I have done when in apprehension of immediate death. I had a headache the rest of the day, so great was the excitement produced by what will appear to most people a very inadequate cause.”

  15. Sian Evans
    Posted July 15, 2017 at 6:46 pm | Permalink


  16. Posted July 16, 2017 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Richard Conniff has kind of already done the “how crazy are collectors to do what they do in pursuit of specimens” project. He has a book titled The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth on the subject, and wrote a series of essays entitled Specimens about it in the New York Times. He also has a website where he has “The Wall of the Dead: A Memorial to Fallen Naturalists“, listing naturalists who have died while (more or less) out in the field. Jerry’s and my friend Ken Miyata, and Preston Webster, another MCZ grad student from the 70s (who I think Jerry knew), are memorialized there.

  17. Posted July 17, 2017 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    In Flanders Field, where the butterflies grow …

  18. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted July 17, 2017 at 5:13 pm | Permalink

    Old geologist’s joke : the best specimens are found 3 days after the death of the last camel.
    Which should prompt the questions of “how are you, the diarist going to get back?”, and more importantly, how are the specimens going to get back.
    True story : Marie Stopes, the famous plant palaeontologist, gave some fossil-seeking advice to Robert Scott before his expedition to the South Pole. Scott took his lessons well, and collected important specimens (including IIRC, the first Antarctic fossils of Ginko leaves). Scott’s party carried some 15kg of these samples with them after Oates took his “walk outside, for some time”, and they were found, labelled, in the tent with the bodies.

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