Using Natural History Specimens in Interdisciplinary Research on Past Ecologies
I am the Canada Research Chair in Global Environmental Histories and Geographies and am interested in how we can use historical natural history specimens (e.g. birds, plants, rocks) as cultural artifacts to examine global environmental change from an interdisciplinary perspective. Over the last decade, there has been a growing body of work recognizing the value of historical natural history specimens as valuable sources of data in global environmental change. Many of these specimens date back to over 150 years ago, and provide insight into environmental change over time when examined with contemporary records.
However, as critical scholars have emphasized, such historical natural history materials reflect not just simple representations of reality but were entangled in systems of knowledge and power in varying places and times. For example, a number of natural history collections in British museums connect to wider histories of Britain’s global empire, and therefore require a critical historical geographical approach, which takes into account the colonial contexts in which these materials were collected in the first place.
Figure 1: A number of army surgeons with the Army Medical Department sent natural history specimens from India, Canada, the West Indies, South Africa, New South Wales, Western Africa, and Ceylon back to the museum at Fort Pitt, Chatham.
The following blog contribution highlights some initial research on Bermuda that was part of a larger project tracing the ornithological collections of British military and naval officers across the nineteenth-century British Empire. During the nineteenth century, Bermuda emerged an important semi-tropical colonial site for the movement of Royal Navy ships, troops, and trade, linking Britain to the West Indies and British North America as part of the North America and West Indies Station. British naval and army officers collected natural history specimens as part of their trans-imperial careers in places such as Bermuda, and many of their specimens are now stored in the collections rooms of natural history museums in the United Kingdom, United States, and Canada.
We are currently integrating these materials into our HGIS prototype using ESRI’s Story Maps to generate new research questions for future research and collaborations on the global environmental histories of the North Atlantic. What follows are some traces of Bermuda’s natural heritage found in natural history collections across the North Atlantic during research trips to the museums and archives in Bermuda (November 2011, December 2014, May 2015); the World Liverpool Museum (December 2012); the Natural History Museum in London and Tring (Summer 2009, December 2012, July 2015); Cambridge (July 2009); and the American Natural History Museum in New York (February 2013).
Birds held a particular fascination to members of the British Army and Navy who were stationed in different parts of the British Empire. In the 1840s, a group of colonial officials serving in Bermuda contributed significantly to the ornithology of the islands. The group consisted of several British military and naval officers, an HM Customs officer, a businessman, and a reverend, all of whom observed, documented, and collected birds. Over the years, these men developed a friendship that lasted beyond their brief service in Bermuda.
One of these individuals was Reverend Henry Baker Tristram (1822-1906), who served as military and naval chaplain at Bermuda in the late 1840s. As chaplain, he resided at Parsonage House, which became a meeting place for these men. The Parsonage House was part of the Royal Naval Dockyard on Ireland Island, and would have been an idea site to discuss ornithology.
Figure 2: Dr. Johnson Savage (1805-1884), Royal Artillery, painted the Dockyard Parsonage ca.1833-1836 (Courtesy of the National Museum of Bermuda). We have incorporated the Savage watercolours as part of our “Vantages of Bermuda” module in our HGIS prototype.
Figure 3: An example of our HGIS prototype, which incorporates the Dr. Johnson Savage watercolours of Bermuda ca.1833-1836
Tristram would later become the Canon of Durham Cathedral, and maintained close ties with the British Ornithological Union and other naturalist organizations in Britain. Part of his Bermuda diary was published in the Bermuda Journal of Archaeology and Maritime History in 1996, while his ornithological collections of Bermuda are housed at the World Liverpool Museum.
Figure 4: H.B. Tristram (Photo from The Ibis Jubilee supplement 1908 on Wikipedia, accessed 18 January 2018)
Tristram’s collection of Bermuda birds was made possible by many individuals such as Captain John Walter Wedderburn of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment (Black Watch). Captain John W. Wedderburn’s collection of Bermuda and Nova Scotia birds are housed at the Zoology Museum at the University of Cambridge, the World Liverpool Museum, and the American Museum of Natural History. Wedderburn became known as the person to collect one of the last Labrador Ducks in Nova Scotia before going extinct when serving in Halifax.
Figure 5: A specimen of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) by Captain Wedderburn at the World Liverpool Museum.
Bird skins from Royal Navy officers and surgeons also form part of Tristram’s ornithological collections. The son of the Scottish naturalist Sir William Jardine, Lieutenant William Jardine, collected many specimens of Bermuda. The Royal Navy officer married Louisa Archer Harvey when serving on H.M.S. Nile, whose father, George Cockburn Harvey, was born in Bermuda and became a prominent merchant in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Another naturalist associated with the collection is Dr. William Gunn, who served at the Royal Naval hospital in Bermuda. Royal Navy surgeons often maintained an interest in natural history while working abroad.
Figure 6: A specimen of Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) collected in 1860 by Lieutenant William Jardine at the World Liverpool Museum (December 2012)
Figure 7: A specimen of an Eastern Bluebird (Sialia sialis) by Dr. William Gunn of the Royal Naval Hospital, Bermuda, in 1849 at the World Liverpool Museum (December 2012)
Some of these men published natural history accounts of Bermuda, which provides further information on the dates and localities of some of the birds found on the islands. Many of these books are available online using The Internet Archive and The Biodiversity Heritage Library. For example, in The naturalist in Bermuda; a sketch of the geology, zoology, and botany of that remarkable group of islands; together with meteorological observations (1859) by John Matthew Jones, J.L. Hurdis, and J.W. Wedderburn, Colonel Maurice Drummond-Hay of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment described observing a swarm of Pectoral Sandpipers the parade ground at the Royal Naval Dockyards in Bermuda on October 9, 1849 (Jones et al., 1859, p. 44). Drummond-Hay would later become the first President of the British Ornithological Union in 1858.
Another group of soldier-ornithologists centered on the Royal Engineers officer, Phillip Savile Grey Reid (1845-1915), who collected and documented in detail the birds of Bermuda in the 1870s. His bird skins and field journals are located at the Natural History Museum at Tring, provide detailed information on the dates, localities, and species observed and collected in 1874-1875. Philip Savile Grey Reid also published his works in The Birds of Bermuda (1883), providing a complete list of birds he observed in 1874-1875.
Figure 8: A specimen of American Black Duck collected by P.S.G. Reid, Royal Engineers, in Bermuda 11 January 1875, Natural History Museum, Tring, UK (December 2012)
Figure 9: A page from January 1875 in Philip Savile Grey Reid’s ornithological diary at the Natural History Museum, Tring (December 2012)
Figure 10: Royal Engineers Officer, P.S.G. Reid’s The Birds of the Bermudas (1883).
British naturalists were not the only ones interested in the birds of Bermuda. The American zoologist, Clinton Hart Merriam (1855-1942), collected birds during his visit to Bermuda in 1881. Merriam would later become one of the founding members of the American Ornithological Union in 1883, and the first chief of the Division of Economic Ornithology and Mammalogy of the United States Department of Agriculture in 1886. Merriam’s birds of Bermuda are now housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Figure 11: Clinton Hart Merriam by Frances Benjamin Johnston (Photo from Wikipedia, accessed 18 January 2018)
Figure 12: A few tropic birds (Phaethon lepturus catesbyi) of Bermuda collected by C. Hart Merriam in May 1881 (February 2013)
The American Natural History Museum also houses the collection of birds by William Beebe (1887-1962) from 1921 to 1951. Beebe was hired as the Bronx Zoo’s first curator of birds, and his fieldwork resulted in the creation of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Department of Tropical Research, which he began directing in 1922. Beebe spent many years in Bermuda setting up his research station on Nonsuch Island, and collecting specimens, taking ocean depth measurements, and writing his book, Nonsuch: Land of Water (1933).
Figure 13: Some photographs in Beebe’s Nonsuch: Land of Water (1933)
Figure 14: A photograph of a Bermuda Cahow in Beebe’s Nonsuch: Land of Water (1933). Nonsuch Island is currently the site of a rehabilitation program to bring back the Cahow.
Figure 15: A screenshot of our HGIS prototype for Empire, Trees, Climate, illustrating our fieldwork on Nonsuch Island in May 2015.
HMS Challenger Materials
An important aim of our research is to identify other sources of proxy data to reconstruct climate. While conducting research at the World Liverpool Museum, I encountered their HMS Challenger collection, which was part of Britain’s first government-funded expedition to study oceans on a global scale. On December 21st 1872 HMS Challenger sailed from Portsmouth on a four-year 70,000 nautical mile voyage of exploration around the globe. Naturalists aboard the ship surveyed systematically the geology, topography, biology and chemistry of the deep sea, resulting in thousands of specimens scattered to scientists around the world. Some of these collections and recordings included materials from Bermuda and Halifax.
Figure 16: Some samples of HMS Challenger at the World Liverpool Museum (December 2012)
Figure 17: The track of HMS Challenger between St. Thomas, Bermuda, and Halifax in Sir C. Wyville Thomson’s The Atlantic (1878), Volume 1.
A valuable tool in locating the specimens in the collections is the database created by the HMS Challenger Project, a two year project to re-unite scientific specimens and other material from the voyage of HMS Challenger (1872-76). Led by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter, data from museums across the UK and abroad have been incorporated into the database.
Figure 18: Some of the materials associated with HMS Challenger
Of particular interest to our project are the ocean-bed sediment specimens that can be used as proxies for climate and studies of the ocean and ocean floor. Many of the specimen jars hold sediments that contain hundreds of thousands of microfossils valuable to paleoecologists. Paleoecology, or the ecology of the past, uses geological and biological evidence from fossil deposits to investigate the past occurrence, distribution, and abundance of different ecological units (species, populations, and communities) on a variety of timescales.
The most important sub-collection is the Sir John Murray Collection at the Natural History Museum in London, which consists of sea-bed samples from the HMS Challenger expedition (1872-76). It was given to the Natural History Museum by the Murray family in 1921 following his death in 1914. Some of these sediment remains can be found in other museums across the United Kingdom such as the Royal Museum of Greenwich, Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, Hunterian Museum & Art Gallery, National Museum of Ireland – Natural History, National Museum of Wales, World Liverpool Museum, and Manchester Museum.
Figure 19: A example of the materials associated with Bermuda in the HMS Challenger database
Figure 20: Microscope slides of Coral Mud collected at Bermuda on 21 April 1873 now housed at Royal Museum Greenwich, UK.
Future research will involve gathering information on the natural collections of Bermuda in museums across the North Atlantic. We are interested not only in birds, but plants, rocks, fish, crustaceans, etc.. This research involves locating the specimens and their associated documentation (field journals, published pieces, correspondence). For example, we will record all of the bird species, localities, dates, and any other information (i.e. names of local collectors) mentioned in the published works and field journals to incorporate into our HGIS Prototype with the specimen.
We will map using GIS the collections of HMS Challenger for Bermuda, the West Indies, and Nova Scotia, and will investigate the possibility of sampling some of the ocean-bed sediment gathered as part of the expedition. We hope to broaden our approach in critical dendroprovenancing to other fields such as paleoecology in order to introduce interdisciplinary ways to integrate research methodologies in the humanities and geophysical sciences.
Baker, A.M, ‘The Great Gun of Durham’—Canon Henry Baker Tristram, F.R.S.
(1822–1906): an outline of his life, collections and contribution to natural
History,” Arch. Nat. Hist. 23 3 (1996): 327–341
Greer, K, Red Coats and Wild Birds: Empire, Science, Nature in the new book series, “Flows, Migrations, and Exchanges,” University of North Carolina Press (forthcoming 2018)
Greer, K, & S. Bols, “‘She of the Loghouse Nest’: Gendering Historical Ecological Reconstructions in Northern Ontario,” special issue on Feminist Historical Geography, Historical Geography 44 (2016): 45-67
Greer, K, “Maritime zoogeography and imperial defence: tracing the contours of the Nearctic region in the British North Atlantic 1838-1880s,” special issue in Geoforum (October 2015): 454-464
Greer, K, “Geopolitics and the avian imperial archive: the zoogeography of region-making in the late 19th-century British Mediterranean,” The Annals of the Association of American Geographers 103, 6 (2013): 1317-1331
Greer, K, “Untangling the avian imperial archive,” Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture, special issue on Alternative Ornithologies 20 (Spring 2012): 59-71