Field of Science

More From the "They Don't Write Papers Like They Used To" Files

But before that, a couple of other things:

Recent Carnivals - Berry Go Round is here, Circus of the Spineless is here.

Also recently, the Open Laboratory 2008 collection of some of the year's best online science writing is now available. In the interests of disclosing all interests (naturally), yours truly has a piece featured in this publication - on citrus fruit. Anybody who has heard me commenting on my poor knowledge and outright terror of botany will know that this is a Very Funny Thing.

On to the main point of the post, which will not be anything I'm writing at all...

Recently, I was reading a paper from 1866 by a Dr H. Dohrn with the unprepossessing title of "Synopsis of the birds of Ilha do Principe, with some remarks on their habits and descriptions of new species" (Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1866: 324-332). Principe, for those who don't know it, is a part of the country of Sao Thomé and Principe in west-central Africa. This is the second paragraph of that publiction:

It seems to me that the most remarkable feature in the fauna of Ilha do Principe is that not a single bird of prey exists on the island, whilst they are abundant on the two other islands and on the nearest part of the continent. I saw hundreds of Milvus parasitus in San Thomé; Gypohierax angolensis and some other species are not uncommon in Fernando Po; but the whole tribe avoids Principe. The inhabitants of the latter place and of San Thomé assert that there is a deadly hatred between the Grey Parrots (Psittacus erythacus) of Principe and the Kites of San Thomé, and that, if ever a Milvus visits the neighbouring island, hundreds of Parrots fall upon him and kill him, and that the Kites take revenge if perchance a Parrot should venture a trip to their kingdom. There must be some family reason for this strange degree of enmity, for they seem to live in tolerable peace together on the coast.

You will probably not be surprised to hear that I was somewhat taken aback by this - even allowing for the different time period, it seemed a rather credulous account. But as I read further, I realised that Dohrn was employing something that is a little alien to modern academic writing: irony.

To demonstrate my point, here are my other favourite passages from Dohrn:

On a species of drongo:

The native name is "Maria Palu, feiticeira" (translated, Maria Palu, the sorceress). The bird is black, with red eyes; seems very indolent in daytime, and shows a great ability in the imitation of some other birds' voices. Of course there must be some "feiticeira" to it: therefore, sitting on the roof of a house and singing in its melancholy manner, it prophecies the death of one of the inhabitants; and this, of course, takes place, but often a long time after this prophecy.

On the bald ibis:

Soon after my arrival on the island I was informed by some natives that there was a very remarkable bird in the island called "Corvão." One told me that it was a kind of raven with splendid metallic wings; another described the bird "with the head of an owl and the feet of a duck, climbing up and down trees;" and others gave me other extravagant descriptions of it; but all of them agreed that the bird lived in almost inaccessible rocky and wooded localities of the southern district, and that if ever a specimen passed over the town it was a bad omen for the white inhabitants, who in such case were exposed to heavy disease or death. Of course I was very curious to see this species, and settled for a fortnight in a negro's hut in those desert parts of the island*. Whoever has visited those large tropical forests knows the difficulty of proceeding there. I enjoyed the special favour of heaven in arriving there when the rains set in a month before they usually do, and it was very hard work to run after these birds. I saw them daily at great distances, and heard them crowing like a Raven; but as soon as I entered the forests the monkeys made so much noise, barking and howling, as to alarm all the animals in the neighbourhood. Thus I was finally very glad when one of my native hunters appeared with a female specimen of the Corvão, which turned out to be Geronticus olivaceus.

*I think in this case "desert" means "deserted", not "arid".


  1. Yay! Aussies for the win in 2008 Open Lab! :D

  2. That is, of course, assuming that "Australia" is not some vast conspiracy concocted by an assortment of people who do not wish to admit to coming from Florida.

    I should probably add that I am not an Australian. :-)


Markup Key:
- <b>bold</b> = bold
- <i>italic</i> = italic
- <a href="">FoS</a> = FoS