Audubon Made Up At Least 28 Fake Species To Prank A Rival

Naturalist John James Audubon combined his science interests with his talent for art, and left a legacy of knowledge contained in his book The Birds of America. He had identified 25 new species and documented thousands more. Recently it came to light that he left behind a massive prank as well. Smithsonian curator Neal Woodman has been studying the notes of French naturalist Constantine Rafinesque, and found how much he had been influenced by his time spent with Audubon on a riverboat trip in 1818.

Rafinesque was an extremely enthusiastic namer of species: during his career as a naturalist, he named 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, approximately. He was self-taught, and the letter of introduction he handed to Audubon described him as “an odd fish.” When they met, Audubon noted, Rafinesque was wearing a “long loose coat...stained all over with the juice of plants,” a waistcoat “with enormous pockets” and a very long beard. Rafinesque was not known for his social graces; as John Jeremiah Sullivan writes, Audubon is the "only person on record" as actually liked him.

During their visit, though, Audubon fed Rafinesque descriptions of American creatures, including 11 species of fish that never really existed. Rafinesque duly jotted them down in his notebook and later proffered those descriptions as evidence of new species. For 50 or so years, those 11 fish remained in the scientific record as real species, despite their very unusual features, including bulletproof (!) scales.

You might say Rafinesque was taken hook, line, and sinker. But fish were just the beginning. Woodman has uncovered birds, plants, and mammals that Rafinesque detailed, all from information Audubon fed him two centuries ago. Read about those “species” and see pictures at Atlas Obscura.  

(Image credit: Smithsonian Institution Archives/SIA2012-6095)

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