The Ox-Born Bee

Excursions into art and science

Month: October 2014

The Colorful Dead: Birds of the Moore Lab of Zoology

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I recently had the pleasure of taking a tour of the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College, organized by the Atlas Obscura Society, where I had a chance to see their remarkable and vast ornithological collection. The MLZ is about to undergo a major renovation and will be closed for a couple of years, so I was glad to be able to get in before that happens.

The Lab was founded in 1950 by Robert T. Moore. Moore, a wealthy fox farmer with a passion for birds, was from New Jersey and eventually settled in La Quiñada, California. His aim was to document the bird biodiversity of Mexico.  According to the MLZ’s fact sheet, it contains over 62,000 bird specimens of primarily “neotropical” birds–or birds from the New World. Most of those were collected in Mexico between 1933 and 1955 by Moore’s paid collector Chester C. Lamb, a one-eyed naturalist whose impairment didn’t stop him from collecting and preparing 40,000 birds or discovering over eighty species new to science. (He’s sporting a glass eye in the photo.)

Chester C. Lamb

Collections Manager James Maley knew the crowd-pleasers among his collection and brought out a variety of colorful specimens.


Plume throated cotinga

Superciliary hemispingus

Resplendent quetzal (Montezuma)

Trays of bright tanagers, a Lovely Continga, a Superciliaried Hemispingus, and a Resplendent Quetzal dazzle a visitor with the sheer exuberance of color. In fact, it’s hard not to be struck by the dissonance between these lifeless specimens and their astonishing array of colors–a dissonance made even a little spooky by the white cotton stuffing where their eyes once were, as if they’re glowing from within despite their deathly stillness.

It’s sad to see a lot of dead animals, especially such beautiful ones, but it’s also important to understand the history and function of such a collection. Biologists are reluctant to collect and do so only when absolutely necessary. And once collected, a specimen’s research value is priceless and, if properly preserved, for all time: The MLZ’s oldest specimens date to the 1850s, with most collected before 1960.

Maley recognizes that the question of collecting is “a sensitive point” among scientists:

There’s no evidence that collecting contributed directly to the extinction of any bird species. This is often suggested as the reason some species went extinct in North America by people fundamentally opposed to collecting anything. For [extinct] species like Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Carolina Parakeet it was habitat destruction and overhunting that spelled their demise. The last ivory-bills were not collected, their remaining habitat was cut down during WWII, and none had been collected for many years prior to that.

Modern collection practices are quite restrained. And with the annual destruction of birds from domestic cats up in the range of 4-5 billion, the 2-3 thousand killed and collected annually by biologists for the purposes of recording changes in biodiversity and for comparative genetic analysis seems positively modest.

Moreover, the MLZ’s collection serves as an invaluable resource for investigations into the impacts of deforestation on bird habitat and diversity–a time lapse photo of then and now. An important function of a collection like the MLZ’s is to make such impacts visually immediate even to the untrained eye. Among the trays of birds that Maley exhibited were four representing all the specimens Lamb detected during an excursion to Nayarit in central Mexico in 1941:

Biodiversity trays, Lamb (1941)

Bird biodiversity in Nayarit, Mexico in 1941

The sheer exuberance of colors of these birds usefully demonstrates the regional biodiversity. The next two trays Maley exhibited represent everything Maley and his team detected on a return trip to the same region of Mexico in June of 2014, when they were astonished and saddened to find a radical reduction in both number and diversity:

Biodiversity in 2014

Bird biodiversity in Nayarit, Mexico in 2014

Says Maley of the return trip:

The trip was amazing in that we were able to visit a very remote part of Mexico, but melancholy in documenting how much had actually changed. The landscape is now scorched, eroded, and deforested. The local ranchers burn the forest to grow grass for cattle, but during the rainy season the hillsides fill the streams with soil as it washes down to the bedrock. The deforestation is likely responsible for the huge loss in biodiversity, but the continued destruction for ranching is preventing many species from returning to this area.

What struck me especially was not just the fact that they detected fewer than half the specimens, but the absence of color among specimens they did find (see a complete checklist of birds they found here). I wanted to imagine a connection between color and survival–that color was somehow inversely proportional to rate of survival and that color and diversity are somehow connected: when times are tough, color is the first thing to go, or something like that–but that’s not exactly how it works. According to Maley, plenty of bird populations facing a decline in numbers remain quite colorful. The most important factor in the loss of color on these trays, he says, is the total absence of parrots from the recent trip’s findings, the result of the rapacious pet trade. The absence of color is another index of human impact. We like colorful birds, and so to a parrot, color is a liability.

Maley speculated–perhaps a little hopefully, he admitted–that some of these Mexican parrots might be flying around Los Angeles, fugitives (I imagine) from pet stores, homes, or overturned trucks.

In some cases, collections such as the MLZ contain the only remaining examples of birds lost to extinction, such as the Carolina parakeet, the passenger pigeon, and the imperial woodpecker–all of which are represented at the Moore lab and pictured below.

Carolina parakeet

Carolina parakeet

Imperial woodpecker

Imperial woodpecker

Passenger pigeon

Passenger pigeon

The Carolina parakeet’s color also worked against it: its feathers were hotly sought after to satisfy the Victorian mania for feathered hats. These specimens represent the last evidence of these birds, some of whose numbers reached into the billions just a century ago, as was the case of the passenger pigeon (John James Audubon once witnessed a flock of passenger pigeons moving 60 mph that took three days to pass overhead). These bright-throated birds must have seemed indomitable to those who saw them in such quantities, an example of nature at its most prolific–perhaps a feeling Chester Lamb experienced in 1941. What could possibly obliterate such a species or such diversity? It’s difficult to conceive of habitat destruction or hunting at such a scale as to reduce a population of billions to just a handful of dried specimens. The scale is inhuman. Maybe the colorful dead in collections like the MLZ, reduced to a stiff singularity, can help us conceive the inconceivable.

The Dream of the Unicorn, part 1: The Origin of the Species

Half our days we pass in the shadow of the earth; and the brother of death exacteth a third part of our lives. A good part of our sleep is peered out with visions and fantastical objects, wherein we are confessedly deceived. The day supplieth us with truths; the night with fictions and falsehoods, which uncomfortably divide the natural account of our beings. And therefore, having passed the day in sober labours and rational enquiries of truth, we are fain to betake ourselves unto such a state of being, wherein the soberest heads have acted all the monstrosities of melancholy, and which unto open eyes are no better than folly and madness.

So writes the English doctor, essayist, and human curiosity Sir Thomas Browne (1605-82) in a short essay “On Dreams.” Browne’s division of daylight rational inquiry from nighttime fictions and falsehoods is a good place to begin an inquiry into the existence of unicorns, not least because Browne himself investigated the issue in his Pseudoxia Epidemica or Enquiries into very many received tenents  and commonly presumed truths (1672). Browne’s target is “vulgar” or popular errors–folk beliefs that persist despite his age’s burgeoning sense of reason. How, he wonders, are people so “ready with open armes to receive the encroachments of Error”?

Among those persistent errors regarding the natural world that peeved Sir Thomas are the beliefs that pigeons have no gall, that a bear shapes her cubs at birth like clay, that an ostrich will digest iron, that moles have no eyes. Browne likewise takes aim at the unicorn–a creature whose inclusion in the most comprehensive encyclopedia of animals of the time, Edward Topsell’s History of Four-Footed Beasts (1658), perhaps owes to the fact that that book was a translation of German naturalist Conrad Gesner’s Historiae Animalium (1551-58) written over a hundred years earlier. By Browne’s time, it’s more than likely he was dispelling the dreams of an age that had already awaken.

Edward Topsell, "Of the Unicorn." History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

Edward Topsell, “Of the Unicorn.” History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents. 1658.

But maybe this assessment, like Browne’s, is too hasty. Are we so sure unicorns don’t exist? This is the question I posed to my Science and Literature class in a recent lecture and which I want to explore here over a series of posts. I’ll eventually get around to answering the question, but first it’s helpful–and fun–to figure out exactly what a unicorn is before deciding that it never was.

I was talking about the history of the unicorns in a college class because it turns out that the unicorn is a great case study in the history of science. If you understand how the unicorn managed to make it all the way to the 17th century, you can understand a bit about how we come to know and understand the natural world.

For most of us, the unicorn is a childhood fantasy character–a cartoon adornment of school lunchboxes and Trapperkeepers™. I’m embarrassed to admit that as a young would-be artist, I drew a lot of unicorns, and they were all the same: magnificent white horse-like beasts with glowing horns that acted like lightning rods for rainbows. My unicorns were mostly the barely sublimated expression of pre-adolescent sexual desire for the lithe, long-haired ladies of my 5th and 6th-grade classes, to whom I freely gave them out. (Unless of course they were an excuse for a boy to draw rainbows….) They looked more or less like this, but with more rainbow:

Unicorn drawing

More recently I’ve been hearing the word “unicorn” as applied to something whose improbability is an index of its desirability, as in: “I need a shuttle service that gets me to LAX in under 35 minutes.” “You could just ride a unicorn.” This is actually a much older usage: a 1905 Dictionary of Slang and Colloquial English defines unicorn as “two men and a woman (or vice versa) working together.” Haha.

But the unicorn as an object of scientific investigation is a lot older still, and weirder. Probably the first descriptive account of it is from a 4th-century BCE Greek doctor and explorer named Ctesias of Cnidus, who is reported to have seen a unicorn during a trip to India, which he recorded in his work, the Indika. (That this work shares its name with a species of marijuana seems appropriate.)

At this time, India was a stand-in for all that was fantastic in the minds of ancient Greeks, just as the Americas would be two thousand years later for Renaissance Europeans. It was the edge of the known world and represented the limits of Greek knowledge. As such, it was, like Browne’s dreams, somewhere between the daylight of wakeful reason and the nighttime of fretful visions: things on the margins are either too large or too small, the feverish hallucinations of a culture’s ignorance and craving for curiosities. Among other things, Ctesias described giant roosters and men that lived impossibly long lives. The sun appears ten times larger in India than in Greece and the reeds grow to the height of ships’ masts. Conversely pygmies live there, too, who keep sheep the size of lambs and oxen the size of rams. Ctesias was the first to describe the Cynocephaloi, or dog-headed men, and the martichora, a creature with the face of a human, the body of a lion, and the tail of a scorpion. Such creatures would still haunt the Medieval imagination much later.

Ctesias also describes a “wild ass” the size of a horse, with a

white body, crimson head, and deep blues eyes. They have a horn in the middle of their brow one and a half cubits in length [or 68.58 cm or 27 in]. The bottom part of the horn for as much as two palms towards the brow  is bright white. The tip of the horn is sharp and deep vermillion in colour while  the rest in the middle is black. They say whoever drinks from the horn (which they fashion into cups) is immune to seizures and the holy sickness and suffers no effects from poison…. [Ctesias] also says that other asses, both tame and wild, and the other solid-hoofed animals have no astragalos [or astragalus, the ball-joint of the ankle] or bile in the liver. However, these creatures do have an astragalos and bile in the liver. The astragalos, which is similar in size and shape to that of an ox, is the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is as heavy as lead and the color of cinnabar even at its deepest points. This animal is extremely swift  and strong and neither horse  nor any other animal can overtake it in pursuit. It begins running slowly, but the longer it runs, the more speed it picks up as it exerts itself brilliantly. Usually this animal cannot be hunted, but when they bring their young to pasture and are surrounded by many men on horseback, they choose not to flee and abandon their colts; rather, they fight both with their horn and by kicking and biting. They kill many many horses and men, but they are taken down by the bow or javelin, as one could never capture them alive. Their flesh is inedible on account of its bitterness, but they are hunted for their horns and astragaloi.” 1

Thus, the unicorn. A single paragraph of description of an ass putatively written 2500 years ago. I say “putatively” because the text of the Indika was lost and so despite this “original” description, the unicorn as a species has no origin: the authority on which it’s based survives only as a series of quotations–a waking dream reported by a sojourner to a twilight land of wonders who may or may not have set foot there.

Ctesias’s authority, unlike that of the later, unimpeachable Aristotle, was not held in high esteem, probably because of his penchant for reporting wonders like the Cynocephaloi or the martichora. But as Ctesias translator Andrew Nichols argues, it’s possible that these wonders were of interest to later writers who preserved them and who passed over more mundane details that might have established Ctesias as an authoritative observer. For when Ctesias’s descriptions align with reality, they are quite accurate: later works refer to his description of the bittakos. a bird the size of a falcon with a red face and blue body and which can converse in Indian as well as Greek. This would have seemed wondrous indeed to a culture unfamiliar with parrots.

Despite the unbelievability of his accounts, they survive because they continued to circulate as citations among other historians, natural and otherwise. Even Aristotle, the ultimate authority of antiquity and who among all the early naturalists was probably the only one to insist on making actual observations of the natural world, recorded Ctesias’s account of the single-horned beast in his Historia Animalia, and did so without revealing any suspicion:

some animals are horned, some hornless. Most of the horned ones are cloven-hoofed, e.g., the ox, the deer, and the goat; we have no no solid-hoofed animal with a pair of horns. But a few, e.g., the Indian ass, have a single horn and cloven hooves. The only solid-hoofed animal with a huckle-bone [i.e., the astragalus or ankle-joint] is the Indian ass. 2

Into the Common Era, Roman encyclopedists like Pliny in the 1st-century and Aelian in the 2nd also kept unicorns in circulation. Together, these historians described a species that would live thousands of years in the European imagination before going extinct, a victim of the Enlightenment insistence on empirical evidence and falsification, of which Browne’s Pseudoxia is among the first examples.

If anything, Ctesias and his unicorn belong to a history of error more than to science. Ctesias probably never ventured beyond the Indus Valley in the north of India and thus never even knew of a subcontinent, and so his title itself is geographically misleading 3: it refers more to an idea, a fantasy, than an actual place. In addition, he was probably reporting the oral history of travelers from India rather than making observations first-hand. What’s more, his original record of these indirect accounts was eventually lost, and so even that evidence, such as it was, has little merit. And finally, what little evidence that remains has been distorted by the desire for curiosities of later writers who recorded–cited–these errors in their own too credulous attempts to catalog the natural world in encyclopedias that demonstrate less interested than we do in distinguishing between things reported and things real.

This would seem to be the end of the story: unicorns don’t exist. Except for a couple of things. First, including such an account in one’s own encyclopedia of the known world, however unreliable, makes good sense, doesn’t it? Someone said they saw something. They had no falsifying evidence, so it could be true. Why not include it for someone to disprove later, just in case? Isn’t that kind of curiosity and credulity part of the scientific spirit, if not method? Certainly the world held wonders yet undiscovered and travelers were bringing back more all the time.

But second, more than the spirit of inquiry, there is method: Not only does Ctesias’s account reveal that someone somewhere saw something, those details seem so tantalizingly specific that they cannot be ignored, not even by Aristotle. Such specificity is hard to discount. Something somewhere gave someone the vivid impression of a one-horned animal that exhibited some physical characters (color of coat; number, length, and color of horn; relative size; shape of hoof and ankle-bones; absence of bile; speed), which demonstrated some definite ethological characters (they defend their young aggressively; they attack with horn and teeth), which haunted a particular geography (roughly India; possibly the Himalayan plains; probably Tibet), and which possessed some cultural value in the form of commodities (the horn for drinking; the astragloi for gambling, as dice; the flesh for eating);and which lent itself to amusing stories (they kill many men and horses and cannot be taken alive).

Indeed, early accounts of the unicorn possess all the hallmarks of what we now know as natural history–the observation and description of life. Except for one thing: the creature discovered and described does not appear to have existed. If not the unicorn, what, then, did Ctesias discover? Is it possible to discover something that doesn’t exist? If Ctesias did not discover the unicorn (which at this point I am unwilling to admit), what he did was reveal the possibility of one, which may have been even more wondrous indeed. These are the subjects of my next post!


  1.  Ctesias on India and Fragments of his Minor Works. Trans. Andrew Nichols. London: Bristol Classics, 2011. 56
  2. Aristotle, Historia Animalia. Book II. Trans. A. L.. Peck. Harvard University Press, 1970. II.1.
  3. See Chris Lavers, The Natural History of Unicorns (Harper Perennial, 2010), who helps pinpoint some of the historical details of early accounts of the unicorn.

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