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The Species Seekers Quiz: Not Just a Naturalist

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 12, 2012

Stephen Maturin, played by Paul Bettany, in "Master and Commander"

In Britain, naturalists typically hitchhiked on military expeditions of discovery and conquest (like Charles Darwin aboard HMS Beagle), and often also served their country in what other role?

1.  Musical entertainer.

2.  Interpreter.

3.  Spy.

4.  Guide.

And the answer is

They were spies.

An interest in natural history provided the perfect training in careful observation–and a plausible cover–for work as a spy.  Stephen Maturin, the surgeon/naturalist/ spy in Patrick O’Brian’s novels about the British Navy in the early 19thcentury, wasn’t entirely a fiction.  For instance, Capt. John Biddulph collected over 3000 birds and also spied for the British while traveling in Kashmir, Turkestan, and other Himalayan localities.  Likewise, Sir Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, disguised maps of enemy fortifications in his drawings of butterfly wing patterns.

Boy Scout Founder (and Spy) Robert Baden-Powell

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