By Sonoe Nakasone, Field Book ProjectIt seems I’ve already said quite a bit about Edgar Alexander Mearns (1856-1916), the naturalist who collected birds, mammals, plants—you name it—throughout the US, Philippines, northern Mexico, and Kenya. My article on the Brachypteryx and last year’s Father’s Day post presented glimpses of Mearns as both a collector and person. But Mearns was so prolific a naturalist, so fascinating a person, that I can’t help but return to his collections. This time, let’s talk about fish.
Mearns’s notes seem to crop up everywhere, so I wasn’t surprised to see his familiar name written across a box in the Division of Fish this summer. I greeted the box with the familiarity of an old friend, but upon opening it, was met with the cold grip of a stranger, for in the box was something completely new to me: fish tracings. According to Jeff Williams, Collections Manager (Division of Fish, NMNH), tracing fish was not a standard protocol before, during, or after Mearns’s time. So what prompted Mearns to step outside the box?
Before attempting to answer this question, let me tell you more about these fish tracings. There are 12 tracings of fish included in this collection. It seems Mearns plopped a fish down, outlined it, and then filled in a few details like big round eyes that make the traced mouths look like cartoonish smiles. An impressive detail included is the accurate rendering of the fishes’ tails and fins, which it seems he obtained by covering these parts with ink and stamping them onto the fish outline. Clever, Mearns, very clever. And creative. The result of this tracing and stamping is a rudimentary, yet accurate “sketch” of a fish.
We’ve explored the importance of drawings and sketches of specimens in field notes, especially for fish, on this blog before. We’ve learned from my colleague, Lesley Parilla, that color sketches of fish in the field are particularly important because the fish’s color fades soon after it dies. Some fish sketches, therefore, have a more “finished” look than one might expect from a field sketch. Similarly, I wondered if Mearns’s hasty trace and stamp job captured information lost after his fish were preserved.
Williams thinks it’s likely that Mearns traced his fish in order to obtain a quick measurement of the fish. Accompanying Mearns’s tracings are many pages of detailed fish measurements of every kind. These measurements, however, were most likely taken from preserved specimens. Williams notes that although shrinkage varies by species, preserving fish in alcohol can see a 1-10% decrease in size from the time the specimen was alive. The difference is notable in the length measurement, perhaps several millimeters in difference. It’s possible Mearns’s tracings were a means to ascertain an exact measurement before his specimens shrunk.
What about the tail and fin stamps? What purpose would that have served when the specimens' tails and fins were to be preserved? Unfortunately, I have no real answer to this question, although my uneducated guess is that it served as a quick reference for tail and fin patterns. As for what inspired Mearns in the first place, one clue may come from Japanese Gyotaku, which as Jeff Williams notes, bears similarities to the stamping aspect of Mearns's tracings. Although Gyotaku eventually developed into an art form, it originated as tool for fishermen to document the size and physical attributes of their day's catch. Could Mearns have been emulating the methods of Japanese fishermen?
It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Although Mearns did not invent the technique of tracing fish, Mearns’s fish tracings may serve as a testament to his creativity and resourcefulness in solving the problem of quickly and accurately obtaining measurements and pattern information of fresh fish. Ah, Mearns, is there anything you can’t do?!
Thanks to Kris Murphy and Jeff Williams for their assistance with this article.