Wednesday, April 27, 2011

How did Townsend get away with it?

Townsend's WarblerTownsend's Warbler, Beaverton, Oregon, 22 January 2011 by Greg Gillson.


Townsend's Warbler Dendroica townsendi (Townsend, 1837)

The above reference is the scientific listing of Townsend's Warbler. Let's analyse this further.

Townsend's Warbler is the common English name as established by the American Ornithologists' Union (AOU).

The binomial is a Latinized set of words, the genus name first and species name second (always non-capitalized). The person who describes a new species to science (by being the first to publish the description in a scientific journal) gets to choose this name. This bird is named townsendi, for John Kirk Townsend.

The final part (in parentheses) is the person who described the bird to science and the year of publication. Seems simple enough. It was John Kirk Townsend in 1837 in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Now wait just a minute!

There aren't too many rules about naming a species. But I do know that you can't name a species after yourself!

How did Townsend get away with it?

John Kirk Townsend was born 200 years ago, in 1809. As a young man he distinguished himself in medicine and natural history, especially bird collecting (shooting and stuffing). He was asked by botanist Thomas Nuttall to join him on Nathaniel Wyeth's second expedition to the Oregon Territory from 1835-1837. The expedition was a failed business venture on Wyeth's part, but was scientifically rewarding.

Townsend wrote about his adventures in the 1839 book: "Narrative of a Journey Across the Rocky Mountains."

It turns out, though, that the article in the Journal of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia was actually written by Thomas Nuttall in Townsend's name.

Thus, Nuttall named Townsend's Warbler in a journal using Townsend's name as author. Confusing? Yes. Sneaky? Perhaps. But certainly interesting!

This new species of warbler wasn't the only new bird described to science that Townsend collected. He also collected Mountain Plover, Vaux's Swift, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Sage Thrasher, and Black-throated Gray Warbler.

Several birds and mammals are named after Townsend, including Townsend's Solitaire, Townsend's Chipmunk, etc. [The Townsend's Shearwater was named after Charles Haskins Townsend (1859-1944) an ornithologist and ichthyologist.]

Being a doctor, you'd think Townsend would have been more careful. But he died of arsenic poisoning in 1851 when only 41 years old. Arsenic was the main preservative in bird specimens. So birding was the direct cause of his death!

More images and history of Townsend's Warbler:

Audubon's Birds of America

Columbia River Images