Tag Archives: biohistory

Morelet and the Neotropics

Arthur Morelet (1809-1892) was a French amateur malacologist who has contributed much to malacology (nearly 100 publications, describing more than 700 taxa). He was one of the first malacologists who personally went on expedition to the Neotropics; a trip lasting more than a year during 1846-1848 which yielded nearly 150 new species collected on Cuba, and in Mexico and Guatemala. A few of these are illustrated below (scale: 5 mm).

The advantage of collecting in an unexplored area is indeed the reward to find many species new to science. But the legend above also shows one of the problems (possibly one of the least!) which Morelet faced: there was no Zoological Record or BHL mid-19th century, so there was a chance of introducing a name already used by someone else. Nevertheless, about 2/3 of the species described by Morelet from this expedition are still bearing his author name today.

In the 19th century not every author was able to give precise type localities; often they had to rely on information given by field collectors. So another advantage of collecting your own material: you knew where it had be found. Morelet, in many cases, gave (relatively) good locality data, but still described a number of species with a (relatively) imprecise locality; like “sylvis provinciae Vera-Paz”, a huge area.

As I had come across Morelet and his material for quite some years, I decided it was time to make an in-depth study of this man and his contributions to malacology. Since much of his type material has ended up in the London museum, Jonathan Ablett was willing to join me in this effort. And after more than 200 letters of Morelet became available, Cédric Audibert (Lyon) joined in as well. Together we are busy preparing a bio-bibliography with a list of taxa, illustrated with type material of as much taxa as possible. The transcription and translation of his correspondence will make it possible for the reader to get a much better idea of the life of a malacologist during the late 19th century. Currently we have located about 80% of his type material in several European and some American museums. The remaining taxa will be illustrated with reporductions from the original figures if these are available. Since Morelet started his career as a draftsman, he always paid special attention to the illustration of his papers.

To my surprise nobody has made an attempt to reconstruct the expedition of Morelet to the Neotropics, which brought him not only to the three countries mentioned above but also in Belize. Morelet was not only gifted with a special interest in malacology, but also in history and literature; his library had many travel accounts on its shelves. As Central America was largely unexplored in the 1840s, he published a few years after his taxonomic descriptions also a travel account of his own journey, aimed to a larger public, with many details on the geography and history of the areas visited. These two books allowed me, with some close reading, to reconstruct his trip.

One of the interesting things I discovered was the description of some species from areas, e.g. from eastern Cuba, which he apparently never visited. González Guillén (2014: 147) assumed that Morelet had confused the habours where his ship landed in eastern Cuba. However, from Morelet’s travel account it is clear that he never visited eastern Cuba. He must therefore have received the material from this area, on which he based his descriptions, from another person.

Our monograph is scheduled to appear during Spring 2018 as a book published by the Netherlands Malacological Society. The figures have been taken from a preliminary study which was just published (Breure, 2017).

References:
Breure, A.S.H., 2017. Een expeditie naar de Neotropen: reconstructie van Arthur Morelet’s reis naar Centraal Amerika, 1846-1848. – Spirula, 411: 4-11.[Dutch]
González Guillén, A., 2014. Polymita, the most beautiful land snail of the world. – [Miami]: Estévez & Associates, 359 pp.

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New paper

This weekend a new paper was published related to the history of Neotropical malacology. It deals with three Polish naturalists who either collected in the Neotropics (Jelski, Stolczman) or received their material and published about it (Lubomirski).

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The paper originated during my visit to Warschau in 2015, where I studied the Lubomirski collection. As we decided for the Archives of Natural History, we quickly learned that they would not publish to the underpinning data. These lists of new taxa and eponyms of the three persons is now available in an unabridged version at ResearchGate.

 

New preprint on science networks

Reconstructing historical science networks can be important for understanding the context of the historical core collection in natural history museums. For the reconstruction of such networks up till now one has to rely on correspondence between scientists in archives. These archives are very scarce and often have been lost or destroyed in the past. In taxonomy a proxy may be available in the form of new taxa described as eponyms for contacts of an author. This has been tested with some malacologists from the 19th/early 20th century for which data on their contacts are available, either as correspondence archive or by a re-construction of their network from different sources.

The resulting paper was just published as a preprint:

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Link: https://peerj.com/preprints/2587

New paper published

Dautzenberg again! After my paper on the autographs in the Dautzenberg archives, a second paper on this malacologist was published yesterday. It is based on Dautzenberg’s reprint administration, which allowed a reconstruction of his contacts network and an analysis with regards to different aspects; one of these was the ‘status’ of each person (‘amateur’, ‘professional’ or ‘dealer’).

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The paper was published in a special number of Basteria, dedicated to Rob M. Moolenbeek.

New paper published

Freshly pressed (but in bytes only): a new paper on the drawings of Vietnames land- and freshwater snails that was found in the Bavay archive, and the person who initiated this.

schermafbeelding-2016-09-25-om-11-42-10

We have added biographical data and a list of eponyms of Victor Demange, who was a contact of Bavay.

Reference:
Breure, A.S.H. & Ablett, J.D. The ‘Demange drawings’: known and unknown malacological contributions of Victor Demange (1870-1940). — Folia conchyliologica 36: 1–9. 95_demange

Crossing the border

The borders of a discipline are often quite interesting, also because less research has been done and one can try out novel approaches. Some time ago I did this with the project on snails in art, and this time I ventured to explore the social sciences to get more insight in the history of malacology. Last week I crossed the border in a double meaning, not only to the domain of the social sciences, but also to Germany where I participated in the 10. Trier Summer School on Social Network Analysis.

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The week consisted of two days on the theory of social network analysis (SNA), and 3.5 days of application with different software programmes and own research projects. And as the whole course was in German, my mastering of that language did improve as there is no progress without exercise 🙂

As I have elaborated here, malacologists operate (and have operated), like all scientists, in a social network. The question is what research questions are possible, especially when focussing on the 19th and early 20th centuries? For a better understanding of how malacology as a discipline developed, it would e.g. be interesting to understand how the links between malacologists in the past were functioning (see here), and who played an important role or acted as a broker between different parts of the network. But the question is how to reconstruct these links from the past that tied together the malacologists in an ancient science network.

Since historical research depends on the quality of the data sources, I was happy to have had access to the Dautzenberg archive (Breure, 2015, in press), and to work on the Crosse archive. This allowed for a validation of the idea that eponyms are a proxy for contacts between malacologists. Eponyms have been given, especially during the 19th and early 20th centuries as a tradition, to collectors providing material and to collegial authors. The validation process (Breure, in preparation) proved to confirm the idea that eponyms may act as a proxy for contacts, provided that contextual information is used.

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The figure above is the result of gathering the eponyms given and received by six French malacologists: Crosse, Drouët, Mittre, Morelet, and Petit de la Saussaye. The size of the name reflects the importance in the network, as calculated by statistics in Gephi. Interesting is that Morelet is the most important person in the network of six, and not Crosse as one might have expected.

These results are interesting enough to attempt a follow-up on this interdisciplinary avenue. To be continued…

References:
Breure, A.S.H., 2015. The malacological handwritings in the autograph collection of the Ph. Dautzenberg archives, Brussels. — Folio Conchyliologica 33: 1–111.
Breure, A.S.H., in press. Philippe Dautzenberg (1849–1935) and his time, towards the reconstruction of an ancient science network. — Basteria 80 (in press). Preprint available at DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3672.4726

To wait for print or not, that’s a question

One of my earlier, larger publications (though it’s not is my list here) was about biohistory (Breure & de Bruijn, 1979). It was quite voluminous and so it took time to write and to get it printed. Those were still the days of (relatively) ‘slow science’, and while this was a book, it will always be slower than publishing a paper. Today science is must faster is several ways, and one doesn’t necessarily have to wait till the final print has arrived to see your work being published. Although I have to admit it is always nice to see something in print, it more than often will remain as bits and bytes on your screen.

Several options for rapid, though informal, publication are nowadays available. Some journals offer ‘early access online’, others have the option of non-peer-reviewed preprints, and there is always the option to upload a manuscript as a working paper to ResearchGate or Academia. These latter two options are suitable when you want to use one manuscript as a building block for another, and need a formal reference using the DOI:

Yesterday one such manuscript was published as PeerJPreprint, and again it’s about biohistory. This time about research related to the collections made by a Spanish expedition in South America during the 1860s.

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Although the manuscript is intended for publication in a peer-reviewed journal, this will take time. And probably (much) longer than the paper which will result of the research recently done in Madrid. That was an important reason for choosing this option. And although there are definitely pros and cons related to these different options for quick publication, sometimes it’s not so much a matter of impatience as well as practicality to making me decide this way.

Reference:
Breure, A.S.H. & Bruijn, J.G. de, 1979 (eds.). Leven en werken van J.G.S. van Breda (1788–1867): 1–429. Hollandsche Maatschappij der Wetenschappen, Haarlem / Tjeenk Willink, Groningen.