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  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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Happy Birthday, Elliott Coues

Posted by Richard Conniff on September 9, 2012

“Never put away a bird unlabelled, not even for an hour,” a nineteenth century field guide advised, “you may forget it or die.”  The author was Elliott Coues (9 September 1842-25 December 1899), in his Handbook of Field and General Ornithology.

Naturalists did in fact die, in depressingly large numbers, and they could also be forgetful.  Attaching a label to the leg, with the chicken-scratched details of place, date and habitat, was the only way to make sense of a specimen months later, especially since naturalists then sometimes took dozen of specimens in a day. Collecting multiple individuals within a single species was a way to compile a thorough scientific record of normal variation—the little differences between juveniles and adults, or males and females, or separate populations on neighboring islands.  Even the ordinary differences among individuals in the same population could be crucial for sorting out where one species ended and another began.  Taking multiple specimens also mattered to some naturalists because selling duplicates to collectors back home was their only means of support.

Coues did his scientific work mainly in the service of the U.S. Army, where he was part of the great tradition of military surgeon-naturalists, and later for the Smithsonian Institution.  He joined the Army as a medical cadet in 1862, and served, including long periods on the American frontier, until 1881.  He was a careful scholar and what he once said about bibliography applied equally to his work as a taxonomist, “It takes a sort of an inspired idiot to be a good bibliographer, and his inspiration is as dangerous a gift as the appetite of the gambler or dipsomaniac—it grows with what it feeds upon, and finally possesses its victim like any other invincible vice.”


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