By Lesley Parilla, Field Book Project
Sketch from a page in“Color Notes on Hawaiian Fishes” in Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) Record Unit 7184, Box 16 Folder 8, 1901.
While working on this project I have come across a number of items that have taken me by surprise, changed my perception of what is a priority for specimen description, and what counts as field work. Before this project, I had not realized some types of specimens change dramatically in appearance after they are caught and preserved. Birds’ feathers for instance, stay the same, but fish lose much of their original coloring during the preservation process. This affects the types of information collected in field notes.
Scientists use unexpected resources to collect data. Alexander Wetmore, ornithologist and much blogged about former Secretary of the Smithsonian, used entrée listings on regional menus to gauge the migration of birds across South America. In the case of this post, my discovery has to do with the importance of recording the colors and appearance of fish when first collected.
When fish are collected, many invariably lose their coloring shortly after death or during the preservation process. In field notes from the 1800’s, recording color and patterns was a major focus because of how much was lost by the time specimens reached the institution. See the post and activity on the lovely series of sketches and color images of fish created shortly after they were caught during the United State Exploring Expedition (1838-1842).
While cataloging the Bureau of Fisheries Records, 1877-1948 (RU 7184) I found a record book labeled Color Notes on Hawaiian Fishes. In it were detailed descriptions of fish found at the Honolulu fish market, June 6 - August 8, 1901.
An employee of the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries went through the market carefully describing fish after fish for sale. Descriptions for a single fish often cover an entire page; some, like the one above, include sketches with notes. These sketches are not so different from ones completed during The U.S Exploring Expedition (seen below).
The similarities between these two emphasize one of the things so fascinating about working with Smithsonian materials. As a research institution and federal entity, the Smithsonian straddles the areas of pure and applied sciences. The Bureau of Fisheries grew out of the work of Spencer Baird (Secretary of the Smithsonian 1878 to 1887) conducted for the federal government in regards to American commercial fishing. This is why the Smithsonian has their early records, before the Bureau morphed and merged with US Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Many of Smithsonian departments work closely with federal agencies applying science – US Department of Agriculture, US Geological Survey, just to name two. They work well together because, though the initial purpose of the science is different, the principles and methods are similar. Their results are comparable and of value to both types of science. The two fish shown above are from between Fiji and the Hawaiian Islands, yet the comparison is intriguing because the field work occurred in such dissimilar places, the Pacific Ocean and a fish market.