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The Species Seekers Quiz: Getting Batty

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 20, 2011

Who was Obed Bat?

1.  A student of Linnaeus who became one of his “apostles” in the Far East.

2.  Head of the scientific team aboard the British Navy corvette Challenger on the first great round-the-world oceanographic survey.

3.  A naturalist who was a comic figure in American fiction.

4.  A British ornithologist who was ritually beheaded as a spy.

And the answer is:

A fictional naturalist in a book.

In 1825, James Fenimore Cooper was working to complete the third novel in his Leatherstocking series, a sequel to his bestselling The Last of the Mohicans.  For The Prairie, Cooper created a new character named Obed Bat, or as he liked to hear himself called, on the Latinate model of Carolus Linnaeus, Dr. Battius.  It was a comic caricature of the naturalist “absently endangering himself and others in an addled quest for new species.”

Constantine Rafinesque

Cooper probably modeled Bat on Constantine Rafinesque, who, according to Rafinesque scholar, Charles Boewe, described nine Kentucky bats, along with many other mammals, including the prairie dog.

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2 Responses to “The Species Seekers Quiz: Getting Batty”

  1. Charles Boewe said

    I appreciate the reference, but if I said “probably”–I no longer remember–I would like to change that to “may.”

    Equally possible is Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), who roamed ever farther than Rafinesque and whose very name still provokes giggles. He traveled and explored as far west as Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands) and returned “round the horn” to Massachusetts. During a season alone, collecting botanical specimens in the upper Midwest in territory known to be populated by hostile Indians, he fell ill and would have died had it not been that a friendly Indian picked him up and carried him back to the nearest outpost of civilization. During such expeditions he did carry a gun, but its barrel was always clogged with dirt because he used it to uproot plants.

    It would be interesting to know whether in his non-fiction writing Cooper mentions knowing about either Rafinesque or Nuttall. Of course, he may also have been elaborating on the long-standing conventional image of the eccentric, absent-minded professor.

    • Richard Conniff said

      Hi Charles:

      I apologize for a sentence that can easily be mis-read the way you suggest.

      All I’m attributing to you here is the information that Rafinesque described nine Kentucky bat species. In my book The Species Seekers, I quote your work on several points about Rafinesque’s character. But I argue on my own account that Cooper based the Battius caricature on Rafinesque–and also on the very credible naturalist Thomas Say.

      Thank you for the colorful details about Thomas Nuttall.

      Best wishes,

      RC

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