Catesby’s Insight on Extinct and Endangered Animals

By Kendall Hallberg

Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahamas is an important resource for studying the animals and habitats living in these areas. Catesby’s works are some of the only remaining sources we have for many now rare and extinct animals. These historical records continue to be a valuable resource in discovering and protecting our biodiversity.

Over a hundred years ago, the Passenger Pigeon went from being the most numerous bird in America to complete extinction. Descriptions of these birds highlight the enormity of their numbers saying, “Throughout the 19th century, witnesses had described . . . sightings of pigeon migrations: how they took hours to pass over a single spot, darkening the firmament and rendering normal conversation inaudible” (Yeoman 2014). Catesby echoes this in saying that their numbers were so great “that in some places where they roost, which they do on one another’s backs, they often break down the limbs of Oaks with their weight, and leave their dung some inches thick under the trees they roost on” (Catesby, 1731, p.23). Sadly, these birds were hunted to extinction with the last one dying in captivity in 1914 (Yeoman, 2014).

Around the same time that the world lost the Passenger Pigeon, the Carolina Parakeet also became extinct. Carolina Parakeets were sighted and described by Catesby and much later by John James Audubon. While these birds were once numerous in many areas in North America, they are no longer. “What’s more, scientists don’t know what really drove these parakeets to extinction. Some thought it was habitat loss. Some thought it was hunting and trapping. Some thought disease.” (Burgio, 2018). Catesby cites that, “The orchards in autumn are visited by numerous flights of them; where they make great destruction for their kernels only”, which is a supporting argument for hunting and trapping due to damages as a means of extinction (Catseby, 1731, p.11). Interesting fact: both Martha, the last know Passenger Pigeon, and the last captive Carolina Parakeet were held by the Cincinnati Zoo.

Right click on image to see it full size.

Catesby’s descriptions can give us insight into the history of many unique animals. For example, not extinct, but categorized as endangered, is the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, which has nearly disappeared since the time of Catesby’s works. Though there have not been any conclusive sightings of the woodpecker in 73 years, the species is still categorized as critically endangered (Donahue, 2017). Birds are not the only species recorded by Catesby to have found themselves in dire straits. He also included a few sea turtles in his works that are all now categorized as vulnerable or worse.  The Loggerhead, Green, and Hawksbill sea turtles are illustrated and described in Catesby’s Natural History. Hawksbill sea turtles in particular are critically endangered due to threats from habitat loss and illegal trade (NOAA Fisheries, n.d.). Catesby’s accounts of these creatures may hold valuable information about cultural practices and environmental causes for their decline.

While it is sad to learn about the demise of these species, it is also incredible that we have Catesby’s accounts to reference and learn about their significance. The animals mentioned above are not the only ones that Catesby identified that have become endangered, but just the few that I chose to focus on. Coming up, I plan to share more about the incredible (and sometimes rare) animals and plants captured in their environments by Catesby.

 

References

Natural History, Digitized

By Mēgan A. Oliver, Digital Collections Librarian, UofSC. [Cross-posted from Mining McKissick, McKissick Museum’s blog]

Digitizing natural history collections is quickly becoming a specialty of ours, over at the Digital Collections department at the University of South Carolina Libraries. We’ve partnered with McKissick Museum for the past few years on their nationally grant-funded digitization project entitled ‘Historic Southern Naturalists’ (HSN); many thanks to the Institute of Museum and Library Services for the grant. This digital project has been highly collaborative and has produced a useful and beautiful web portal from which to access myriad museum collections of fossils, rocks, dried botanicals, and minerals, as well as the library’s collection of early naturalist manuscripts.

The Bahamas Titmous[e], first edition of Mark Catesby’s “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands”, 1731.
Since the HSN digital collaboration yielded such great results in providing museum and library users with fantastic historical resources, we’re excited to be back at the beginning of a new natural history digital collection.

In 2019, UofSC officially established the Mark Catesby Centre, a collective of scientists, librarians, curators, rare book experts, and naturalists, with invested personnel spread across the United States and the United Kingdom. The Catesby Centre’s work revolves around researching and promoting the ever-important findings and illustrative records of Mark Catesby, a naturalist who came to study biology in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Bahamas almost three centuries ago. Catesby’s seminal work predates that of Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus by 29 years, with Catesby’s first edition of natural history findings published in 1729. Linnaeus would not release his now-famous biological classification system until 1758. The entirety of Catesby’s work in his multivolume set “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands” was published over the course of 18 years, beginning in May of 1729 and ending in July of 1747.

Digitizing these rare and sometimes delicate natural history items requires specialty scanners and camera equipment, fully trained staff, and a great deal of time and patience. We strive to ensure that the color balance and tone distribution captured with our digitization equipment is as true to the physical, original item as possible. Calibrating and staging a single shot or scan can take up to 30 minutes, or the process could involve multiple scans of the same item in order to get the digital facsimile just right. In our department, this attention to detail often captures the iridescence and depth of the pigments used to hand color illustrations, as well as the texture of paper and the organic signs of age that rare books exhibit. Our staff, often graduates of the School of Library and Information Science here at UofSC, take great pride in producing such detailed work, as digital collections like these provide researchers with the next best thing to seeing a rare item in person; seeing it anywhere in the world at any time, online.

Last year alone, we digitized and helped to format metadata (data that describes the digitized items online) for about 12,000 items for the Historic Southern Naturalists digital collection, and we scanned a little over 2,500 pages and prints from our Catesby rare books.  In creating yet another stunning natural history digital collection for students, scholars, and historians to peruse, we hope to create a diverse wealth of natural history primary resources online.

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The Bahamas Titmous[e], first edition of Mark Catesby’s “The natural history of Carolina, Florida and the Bahama Islands”, 1731.

References