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From the Stacks 

August 28, 2009

Have you met my friend, Jenny Haniver?

Jenny Haniver and I just met. I was vaguely aware of her existence, but I’d never made her acquaintance. Like so much in my life, I found her through books. I first heard of her via an obtuse reference in a French work on fish from 1551. We were formally introduced in the pages of a rather spectacular and unusual 17th century text, Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo.  Ever since Jenny and I met, I seem to be seeing her everywhere.  Maybe she was around before, but I just wasn’t aware, or maybe she’s following me.  Anyway, you’re probably wondering who this Jenny Haniver character is, yes?

“Draco alter ex Raia exsiccata concinnatus” by Ulisse Aldrovandi. Serpentum et Draconum Historiae Libri Duo. California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL666.O6 A42 1640

Maybe not who (or what) you were expecting?  Meet an early depiction of what is known as a Jenny Haniver: a ray or skate that has been cut and shaped by hand, and then dried in order to fabricate another creature altogether.  They make several appearances in natural history texts from the 16th and 17th centuries; indeed, they appear in some of the earliest zoology books.  I first saw this plate several years ago, when I was looking through some early herpetology publications; Ulisse Aldrovandi’s  Serpentum et Draconum…, published posthumously in 1640, is one of the older ones in the Academy Library collections.  It’s a fascinating work, filled with descriptions and illustrations of various snakes, as well as crowned serpents, winged dragons, and…that thing up there.  I didn’t think much of this particular plate, figuring that it depicted yet another imaginary beast.

I returned to Aldrovandi after reading Pierre Belon’s L’Histoire Naturelle des Estranges Poissons Marins, avec la Vraie Peincture & Description du Daulphin, & de Plusieurs Autres de Son Espece, a work in which Belon comments on the practice of fashioning flying serpents and dragons out of rays.  The next time I pulled the Aldrovandi, I saw the notation on the plate pictured above, which begins “Draco alter ex Raia” which tipped me off that Aldrovandi knew this specimen was a “dragon” crafted out of a dead ray. (Incidentally, I stumbled upon Belon’s reference while writing about his work for the Biodiversity Heritage Library blog, where I am now a regular contributor: click here to read my musings on Belon for the BHL).

When I initially encountered Serpentum et Draconum… I was confused.  Aldrovandi is known today as one of the first natural historians to stress the importance of direct observation and accurate illustration in scientific texts (rather than relying solely on hearsay and the work of others who came before).  He was a scholar intent on seeing first-hand as many specimens as possible, dedicated to creating detailed, anatomically-correct illustrations to illuminate his descriptions.  As we can see, he had no trouble revealing a hoax or a fraud when he saw one.  Yet the same work that reveals this fraud is also full of winged dragons and many-headed hydras.

Of course, it is important to remember that while Aldrovandi did travel, he could not go everywhere.  In addition to specimens, he collected illustrations and paintings, which he used to formulate his descriptions and in his teaching.  Some of his specimens were mere fragments, such as bones, horns, skins, and feathers.  It is not too difficult to imagine how certain specimens, along with the descriptions of predecessors, could have led Aldrovandi to include these dragons alongside animals he had seen with his own eyes.  I’ve been batting this around a lot for the last week or so, this interesting book so full of contradictions, a mix of closely observed first-hand accounts, known fakes, and fantastic mythical figures.  It’s enough to make me work on my Latin.

Incidentally, the name “Jenny Haniver” is a puzzle all its own.  No one knows exactly when the term came into use, or what it’s supposed to mean.  The closest to an accepted explanation is that Jenny Haniver is actually “Jeune d’Anvers,” or “young girl from Antwerp” in French. Some speculate that the practice originated in Antwerp, and since some Jenny Hanivers are crafted to look more human than beastly, it’s a plausible theory. Here’s a photograph of a Jenny Haniver from the Canadian Museum of Nature that has more of a human appearance than Aldrovandi’s.

Want to learn more about Aldrovandi and Belon? Interested in the fascinating literature of natural history? As always, the Academy Library is open for your research needs by appointment, and we’re here to answer your questions. Just send us an email, give us a call at (415) 379-5484, or Chat with a Librarian.


Filed under: Rare Books — Librarian @ 2:11 pm

August 11, 2009

This is worth crowing about…

We’ve turned the page!

Drop by the Library Reading Room to see a new page of the Audubon Double Elephant Folio on display for your viewing pleasure.

This month’s choice is the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos (Corvus americanus in Audubon).

“American Crow” by John James Audubon. Birds of America: From Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories (Octavo Ed. 1870). California Academy of Sciences Library, Rare Books QL674 .A9 1870.

We are showing off this particular plate to complement a recent post on the Academy’s Science in Action blog about our increasing understanding of the intelligence of crows and other corvids. Audubon wrote fondly of the crow, praising its intelligence, its bravery, and its devotion to its young.  He chastises those who poison or shoot crows in an effort to protect crops in the field, writing in the Ornithological Biography, “I cannot but wish that they would reflect a little, and become more indulgent toward our poor, humble, harmless, and even most serviceable bird, the Crow.”

The American Crow will be on display until September 8.  If you are visiting the Academy and would like to see it, email library@calacademy.org for an appointment.


Filed under: Audubon,Rare Books — Librarian @ 1:41 pm

August 7, 2009

Early Bird Catches the Specimen

Beginning in 1919, Academy Director Barton Evermann and Joseph Mailliard, Honary Curator of Ornithology and Mammalogy, began putting together a collection of photos and biographical sketches of ornithologists who had studied birds in California.   The first president of the Cooper Ornithological Club, William Otto Emerson was on the short list of early leading California ornithologists.   Emerson, an accomplished artist and photographer, answered Evermann’s request by donating over 40 photographs, many of which were included in Evermann’s and Mailliard’s California Ornithologists Collection.  The photo featured in this post is photo number 24 of that donation.

N21414, California Ornithologists Collection

From left to right are Henry Reed Taylor, Walter Bryant, Rollo Beck, and Richard C. McGregor, presumably at an early Cooper Ornithological Club meeting.  The photo was taken at William O. Emerson’s Hayward home in 1897.  By this time, Taylor and Bryant were accomplished ornithologists and McGregor was still a student at Stanford University.  Rollo Beck was at the tender age of 27 when this snap shot was taken.  And so this photo records a rare assembly of the old and new generations of ornithologists at the turn of the century in Northern California.  Coming across this photo was somewhat like coming across of a photo of your parents as teenagers.

The photo of this gathering is quite rare because Walter Bryant died just a few years later at the age of forty-four.  He was known for his exceptional specimens and considered an expert in mounting birds, particularly hummingbirds.  Bryant was noted as being especially kind to aspiring ornithologists and he was known as a patient and sympathetic tutor in the art of taxidermy.  One can almost hear Bryant patiently tutoring Beck in the trade while McGregor listens on, intensely puffing on his pipe in Emerson’s cramped attic studio.

The Condor featured an obituary at the time of Bryant’s death and appropriately, Emerson wrote of his friend, “Mr. Bryant, as I have known him, was a quiet, reserved, sparely built man, whom it was necessary to know by close association to appreciate his true worth. He was not given to joking but could tell a good story, and was kind to a degree to all. His was a large heart and an honest intent. He always had a good word for everyone and was ready to help the novice in bird lore as I had on many an occasion to learn in our early acquaintance.”

“No insect or bird could escape his eye or ear, as I learned from camp life with him under the white-limbed buckeyes on the banks of a trickling stream beneath Chick’s Cliff in the famed ‘Pine Canyon.’ The first thing in early daybreak, with the last call of the poor-will, Bryant would turn over and say from under his night-cap: ‘Come, Emerson, a fire, a cup of coffee, and then off for the early bird.’ No matter where or how hard the tramp might be, he was ready for it, and would take you to the nesting grounds of the gnatcatcher or to the duckhawk’s eyry in some ‘Castle Rocks.’ He was slow of movement but sure of purpose, and to tell him of some little known bird or animal was to start him off for it at once.”

I’d like to thank Barbara West , volunteer and resident Galapagos expert here at the Academy Archives, for her help in unraveling the rich history behind this remarkable photograph.

- Christina Fidler

Archives and Digital Production Assistant

Other sources referenced:

Harris, H. (1941).  The Annals of Gymnogyps to 1900.  The Condor, 43( 1), 51.

Fisher, W. (1905).  In Memoriam: Walter E. Bryant. The Condor, 7(5), 129-131.

Grinnell, J. (1938).  In Memoriam: Richard C. McGregor Ornithologist of the Philippines.  The Auk,5(2) 163-175.


Filed under: Academy History,Archives,Exhibits,Special Collections — Archives & Special Collections @ 12:54 pm

August 6, 2009

Good for the Swarm?

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.”

- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI

One of the things I enjoy most about being a librarian is that I have the opportunity to assist people with research on a wide variety of topics.  Sometimes the best part is what I unearth during the quest– even though these oddities are rarely useful to the patron, they often get me thinking.

I found one such item yesterday while I was pulling some books about pollinating insects for one of the students in the Academy’s Summer Systematics Institute.  Behold, one of the items found whilst prowling through the stacks:

Kidders Guide to Apiarian Science by K.P. Kidder.  Burlington, VT: Samuel Nichols, 1858

Kidder’s Guide to Apiarian Science by K.P. Kidder (1858).  California Academy of Sciences Library, SF523 .K46

One could be forgiven for thinking this is a charmingly-illustrated beekeeping manual from the 19th century (which it is).  But only after I brought it out from the stacks and  into the light of day did I notice the cover illustration:

That, my friends, is no ordinary beard, but rather a beard of bees.

I’ve seen people with bee beards before, at county fairs and beekeeping demonstrations, but I never gave much thought to the history of the practice.  I can’t find agreement in the literature about who popularized it (several sources give credit to Ukrainian apiarist Peter Prokopovitch, but I have not been able to confirm this.  You can read about his proven achievements here).

Did you know that the Academy has beehives on the Living Roof?  I checked with one of the keepers, and so far, no one has worn the Academy’s bees as a beard, so I had to do some of my own research.

A beard of honeybees is a manipulation of natural swarming behavior.  Bees swarm for different reasons, and can be induced to do so by a variety of means.  One type of swarming is what bees do when they need to find a new place to live.  After reproducing and raising young in a colony, the nest site can become overcrowded.  The established queen leaves the colony to her strongest daughter, takes about half the workers, and leaves to find a new nest elsewhere.  In the swarm, honeybees don’t really operate as independent creatures, but for the good of the whole.  Some bees look for a new nest and recruit others, some go follow to check it out, others assess different sites, and eventually some pilot the swarm toward their new home.   Individual actions eventually add up to a collective decision about a new home.  It is essential that the bees operate this way or the breakaway group could die.

Bees can be induced to swarm if you move the queen.  A queen can be captured and held, inducing her workers to swarm and cluster around her, as if preparing to move the colony.  Wear the queen in a little cage around your neck, and voilà, you have a beard of bees!

I am not a beekeeper, nor am I a bee expert.  I know some folks disapprove of bee beards, on the grounds that it can be stressful and potentially harmful (or fatal) to the bees involved.  Ethics aside, bee beards illustrate something that makes bees particularly interesting. As a swarm, the beard demonstrates how a colony, which integrates individuals by means of communication, cooperation, and division of labor, functions as a “superorganism.”  The colony as a whole can be thought of as one creature.  In other words, the lone honeybee doesn’t survive; it’s all about the group.

Or, what is good for the swarm is good for the bee.


Filed under: Rare Books — Librarian @ 5:06 pm

August 4, 2009

Blue Moon

Last week, I did a small tour for some staff members who were interested in seeing what types of photographic materials we have in our collections. I mostly chose items from the George Davidson collection because it contains several types of photographic processes.

George Davidson was an astronomer, geodesist, and coastal surveyor. In 1868, Davidson was made chief of the U.S. Coast Survey on the Pacific Coast and held that position until June 1895, during which time he oversaw the work of all western survey teams. Davidson was President of the California Academy of Sciences from 1872-1886. He was instrumental in popularizing astronomy on the West Coast and made his private observatory that is featured below, in Lafayette Park, San Francisco available to the scientific community and the public.

Cyanotypes from the Davidson Observatory

For the tour, I pulled various types of photographs including stereopticons, glass lantern slides, glass plate negatives, and cyanotypes.

The cyanotype was invented in 1842 by John Herschel but was most widely used from the 1880s to the 1920s. In this contact printing process, paper is coated with a solution of light-sensitive iron salts. A negative or object is placed on the paper and when exposed to ultraviolet light the chemicals react to form ferric ferrocyanide and ferrous ferricyanide, known as Prussian blue and Turnbull’s blue when used as pigments, and a blue image appears. Once the desired image is acquired the solution is washed away. This is the same process used in making blueprints. Because cyanotypes continue to be light-sensitive after their creation, they should be stored in the dark to prevent fading and damage.

6.4 inch Alvin Clark telescope in the Davidson Observatory

While this process was never very popular for photography, we have several cyanotypes in our manuscript collections including the Alice Eastwood and Barton Warren Evermann Collections.

- Danielle

Archives and Digital Collections Librarian


Filed under: Academy History,Archives,Photography — Archives & Special Collections @ 1:50 pm

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