The Time John James Audubon Made Up Fake Species to Punk a Fellow Naturalist

John James Audubon, the famous naturalist and author/illustrator of the classic work Birds of America, was apparently also the Ashton Kutcher of his day. When fellow naturalist Constantine Rafinesque sought out Audubon, during a journey down the Ohio River, he was only hoping the man would give him some information on plants. Instead, Audubon fed him a series of lies.

Rafinesque was obsessed with plants, and was so devoted to his studies that he seems to have neglected human interaction. He named approximately 2,700 plant genera and 6,700 species, and when Audubon described his appearance, he specified that he wore a “long loose coat…stained all over with the juice of plants.” Since Audubon was already well known for his illustrations of birds, Rafinesque’s thought was that he may have included sketches of plantlife as well. Rather than giving him straightforward plant facts, Audubon chose to describe eleven non-existent species of fish (including one with bulletproof scales?) three fake snails, two fake birds, a fake mollusk, two fake plants (which you’d think the plant expert would have caught those), and nine fake rats.

Presumably Audubon expected to be found out, and for the naturalist community to share a hearty laugh over his little jape. But no, those fake fish stayed on the record for over fifty years, and the true breadth of the prank is only now coming out. In a new paper in the Archives of Natural History, Neal Woodman, a curator at Smithsonian’s natural history museum who has made a second career of investigating Rafinesque, attempts to detail the full extent of the prank. And luckily for us, Rafinesque attempted to draw each of Audubon’s creations, apparently anxious to recreate them exactly as the master naturalist described them. You’ve already seen the adorable “Big-eye Jumping Mouse” at the top of this article, so I’ll ask you to note that Rafinesque drew hilariously “big” eyes, but unfortunately neglected to include little motion lines to indicate “jumping.” And behold the “Lion-tail Jumping Mouse” which would be the star of thousands of Youtube videos, if he were a real animal that existed. Alas.

Lion-tailed Jumping Mouse from Rafinesque journal

And this little guy? This is a “Brindled Stamiter.” You’ll notice it carries its pouches on the outside of its cheeks. Think of all the gifs we could have had, if this animal had actually evolved.

Brindled Stamiter From Rafinesque journal

And finally, say hi to the “Three-striped Mole Rat” which looks very much like an ROUS, which is fitting because they’re equally real. Seriously though, was Audubon just stringing words together at this point, to see if Rafinesque would catch on?

Three-striped mole rat

Check out the whole article (plus a few more faux fauna) over at Atlas Obscura!



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