Quiz Solutions: How Well Do You Know Your Species Seekers?

Quiz Solutions: How Well Do You Know Your Species Seekers?

Richard Conniff
Published: 07/18/2011

Last Friday I posted a quiz about a wild age of discovery, when amateur enthusiasts scoured the earth for new species. It's based on my new book, The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. See how you did on the quiz--answers are below.

1. Because they tended to ignore sexual selection as a factor in the evolution of species, generations of male scientists failed to notice what hard-to-miss phenomenon?
A) Displays by the bird of paradise.
B) Musth in elephants.
C) Changing colors in cuttlefish.
D) The love song of the crested bandicoot.

ANSWER: B. We now recognize that sexual selection accounts for some of the most spectacular displays in the animal kingdom, from the peacock’s tail to the courtship dancing of bowerbirds. It’s also an important factor in the proliferation of species. Males are continually competing against other males, and evolving lavish new displays to impress females. In most species, females sit back, survey the possibilities, and then do the choosing. Despite Charles Darwin’s assertion in The Descent of Man that it isn’t enough simply to avoid being killed by predators, famine, or disease–-that species also evolve depending on which individuals do better at attracting members of the opposite sex--male biologists managed to ignore this idea for more than a century. They did so because it challenged an orthodoxy more sacrosanct than the biblical account of creation: the idea that males are in charge. But all that began to change with the arrival of women in science.

One hundred and fifty years later, women field biologists, no longer constrained by false modesty, would take a closer look at elephants. Among other extraordinary behaviors, they discovered that male African elephants experience “musth,” a recurring period of raging hormones when they belligerently compete for sexual opportunities. The phenomenon should really have been hard to miss. (The researchers actually named one of their study animals “Green Penis,” for his outlandish appearance during musth.)

2. You know about U.S. presidents who have had species named in their honor. President George W. Bush, for instance, was lucky to attain scientific immortality on the back of a slime mold beetle, Agathidium bushi. But which president actually described a new species himself?
A) Teddy Roosevelt, who bagged a new species of piranha during his Amazonian explorations.
B) John Quincy Adams, who discovered a new catfish while skinnydipping in the Potomac.
C) Thomas Jefferson, whose work on mastodons helped make the elephant the symbol of the Republican Party.
D) Rutherford B. Hayes, who discovered a new songbird while out hunting (and shot it).


Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, by Rembrandt Peale, 1800/Whitehouse Historical Association.

ANSWER: C. The only American president to have named a new species himself was Thomas Jefferson. In 1797, while still serving as vice president, he described a species based on a huge claw recovered from a cave in West Virginia. Jefferson, who was obsessed with the idea of finding big, fierce creatures in the American wilderness, thought it was a kind of lion three times larger than its African counterpart. He gave it the genus name Megalonyx.

Unfortunately, it later turned out to be a giant ground sloth. But it was at least a new species, and a French anatomist graciously named it jeffersoni after the president.

Because of this work, Jefferson also gets credit for launching the science of vertebrate paleontology in North America. Incidentally, as president of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Jefferson also sponsored important work on mastodons. But it had nothing to do with the eventual GOP use of pachyderms as their symbol.

3. Why was John J. Audubon resented as an upstart by some established American ornithologists?

A) He failed to pay homage to Alexander Wilson, father of American ornithology.
B) He was a Leatherstocking.
C) He knew nothing about birds.
D) He typically killed birds to obtain his models.

ANSWER: A. Audubon first published his Birds of America in England in 1827. It contained 435 hand-colored plates, depicting more than 500 species in spectacularly lifelike poses, and at life size. One French critic hailed it as “a real and palpable vision of the New World.” With his rough clothes, shoulder-length hair, and gregarious manner, Audubon himself became an instantaneous celebrity in Europe, as a backwoods New World type. James Fenimore Cooper had just made an international hit with his new novel The Last of the Mohicans. Audubon, a shrewd promoter, capitalized on the sensation by presenting himself as a real-life version of Cooper’s hero, the capable frontiersman Leatherstocking.

Some in the American ornithological establishment, however, were furious at him because Audubon’s writings “basely traduced the character of … the illustrious Alexander Wilson.” Wilson’s ground-breaking American Ornithology all but vanished beneath Audubon’s colorful dust. One engraver on seeing Audubon’s wild turkey commented “that he could engrave better with a pitchfork!” Here is Wilson’s wild turkey engraving. You be the judge.

4. In what evolutionary controversy did the trumpeter swan serve as evidence? The one pondering...:
A) Are human races each a different species?
B) Are birds the modern descendants of dinosaurs?
C) Which came first: the chicken or the egg?
D) Is long-distance migration an innate or learned behavior?

ANSWER: A. Social reformer and Audubon collaborator (see the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America) Rev. John Bachman of Charleston, South Carolina, was a thoroughly trained naturalist and knew his way around the species question. Bachman carefully avoided religious arguments in making the case that all human races belong to a single species.

Instead, he relied on the same scientific methods used to separate one species from another in the animal world. He pointed out, for instance, that the whooper swan and the trumpeter swan resemble each other so closely that they were long regarded as one species. Then dissection revealed significant differences in bone count and other internal structures, causing naturalists to split them apart as two separate species.
“Let us now apply this rigid rule of investigation to the anatomy of the bones and the physiology of the various organs in the different races of men,” he suggested. Then he did the numbers: The human breast bone consists of eight pieces in infancy, three pieces in youth, and a single piece in old age–regardless of race. The human skull contains eight bones, with four bones in the ear–again regardless of race. The number of milk teeth and their adult replacements is identical in all races. Bachman’s work influenced Darwin and others who saw the common origin of all humans as essential for evolutionary theory.

5. Napolean’s first aide-de-camp, Col. Pierre Francois Marie Auguste Dejean, was also a coleopterist. What was his specialty?
A) He made precision rifle sights.
B) He collected beetles.
C) He was a battlefield engineer, adept at reading the land by studying the foliage.
D) He designed a new form of artillery.

ANSWER: B. At the height of the Battle of Alcañiz on May 23 1809, as he was about to give the order for a desperate charge by French troops into the center of the Spanish line, Col. P.F.M.A. Dejean happened to glance down. The air around him was thick with gunpowder and blood, but on a flower beside a stream, he saw something unusual. A beetle. Species unknown. He immediately dismounted, collected it, and pinned the specimen to the cork glued inside his helmet.
Dejean was a count and a battle-tested leader in the Napoleonic armies; he would later become Napoleon’s first aide-de-camp. But he was also a coleopterist, a specialist in beetles. His men knew it because many of them carried glass vials for him and had orders to collect anything on six legs that crawled or flew. His enemies knew it, too, and out of respect for the cause of scientific discovery, sent him back vials taken from the dead on the field of battle.

Having collected this latest prize, Dejean swung back up into the saddle and ordered the attack. With bayonets fixed, the massed French forces advanced up the slope toward the Spanish artillery. The gap between them slowly closed, everything tense and quiet.
Then, at the last moment, the cannons let loose a storm of grapeshot into the faces of the attacking line. Hundreds of French soldiers died. Dejean’s helmet was shattered by cannon fire. But he and his specimen survived intact. Years later, he would give his prize from Alcañiz a scientific name, by genus and species, Cebrio ustulatus—only to find that someone else had already entered the species in the annals of science under a different name.

6. What saved the intrepid female species seeker Mary Kingsley from a nasty end?
A) A strong, silent porter.
B) Her trusty elephant gun.
C) Her voluminous skirt.
D) The sharp pointed stick she always carried.

Answer: C. Late one afternoon in 1895, that rare animal, a female species seeker, was hiking alone through a forest in the interior of Gabon. It was treacherous country. Her guides had pointed out the shredded bark of trees along the forest trail, meaning leopards in the neighborhood. The human inhabitants were also fearsome, said to be cannibals.

But Mary Kingsley was in equal parts self-assured and self-deprecating, an attractive unmarried woman in her 30s with an independent income, roaming footloose over “the white man’s grave.” Where male explorers often resorted to the chest-thumping language of conquest, she relied instead on her understated wit. She was also unmistakably intrepid.

This time, though, going ahead on her own proved foolish. It was five p.m., and the path through the woods grew indistinct–she could just pick it out. But then she came to a place where it vanished completely. She peered ahead, and thought she saw it resume again on the other side of a clump of brush. So she pushed on—and plunged to the bottom of a 15-foot-deep pit lined with sharpened spikes.

“It is at times like these that you realise the blessing of a good skirt,” Kingsley wrote. “Had I paid heed to the advice of many people in England, who ought to have known better … and adopted masculine garments, I should have been spiked to the bone, and done for. Whereas, save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.”

Like other naturalists, Kingsley wanted to find new species, and in 1896, she eagerly reported the “verdict” on the haul from her second expedition to West Africa: “one absolutely new fish” and one equally new snake, among other treasures. Kingsley was relieved, “for I was beginning to fear I was an utter wind bag.”